- Associated Press - Monday, September 18, 2017

Minneapolis Star Tribune, Sept. 15

Crack down on vaccine disinformation to prevent next Minnesota measles outbreak

Let’s make this perfectly clear: The fact that no child died this spring and summer in what was one of the worst measles outbreaks to hit Minnesota in years is a result of caring parents, top-notch medical care and the dedication of the state’s world-class public health professionals, who put in massive amounts of overtime to rein in this highly contagious disease’s spread.

Let’s make another thing clear: The lack of such a tragedy cannot be credited to an irresponsible falsehood still peddled in anti-vaccine circles - that measles is a relatively benign disease whose risks are overstated. “Measles remains one of the leading causes of death among young children even though a safe and cost-effective vaccine is available,” according to the World Health Organization. “In 2015, there were 134,200 measles deaths globally - about 367 deaths every day or 15 deaths every hour.”

This is not fake news. It is not a conspiracy theory ginned up by Big Pharma. It is reality, and behind those numbers are grieving families who put a child in an early grave because of a disease that is vaccine-preventable. As for those who shrug off measles deaths as a risk limited to Third World countries, consider what happened during Minnesota’s last large outbreak in 1990. Three children died of measles complications in a state that is home to two medical centers - the Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota - that are among the world’s best.

Now that Minnesota health officials have declared the 2017 measles outbreak to be officially over, it is time for state lawmakers to take strong steps to prevent the next one. That’s especially true as Minnesota’s anti-vaccine activists have garnered national headlines for continuing their reckless crusade even as measles still spread.

Health officials identified 79 cases here after the first illness was identified on April 11. Most who became ill were children under 10, and most had not been vaccinated against the disease. The majority of the cases were in the state’s Somali-American community, where measles vaccination rates dropped precipitously in recent years after targeting by anti-vaccine activists.

The World Health Organization estimates that the measles vaccine saved more than 20 million children’s lives between 2000 and 2015. Lawmakers should focus energetically on measures here to boost vaccination rates and combat dangerous disinformation about the measles vaccine’s safety. There are several clear action items:

- Eliminate the state’s “personal belief” vaccine exemption. Minnesota’s laws are among the loosest in the nation in allowing parents to forgo shots for their children. Tightening the exemption to require a valid medical reason is a much better alternative. California has done this, and it has boosted vaccination rates.

- Update state laws to make explicit the authority that health officials have to exclude unvaccinated individuals from schools and child care during outbreaks.

- Strengthen the ability that the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice has to track down and sanction medical providers who convey inaccurate information about the measles vaccine to patients and the public. The board’s mission is to protect the public’s health by ensuring that those who practice here are “competent, ethical practitioners with the necessary knowledge and skills appropriate to their title and role.” The board, however, is regrettably limited to reacting to complaints at this time. It also may need direction from state lawmakers to ensure that its standards of practice encompass providers’ role in spreading vaccine disinformation.

Legislators should not wait until the start of the next session in February to get going. These action items provide compelling reasons to call a hearing this fall. State Rep. Jennifer Schultz, DFL-Duluth, merits praise for her openness to holding such a forum. Vaccine disinformation is a public health plague and it must be stopped.


St. Cloud Times, Sept. 16

What’s it going to take to curb opioid epidemic?

Too many people are dying from overdoses of prescription pain killers! We must do more to end this crisis!

That theme didn’t just come from this editorial board, or President Donald Trump last month when he said he would declare the ever-increasing death rate a national emergency. It also didn’t start with the death of Prince in the last year. Or actor Philip Seymour Hoffman in 2014. Or Heath Ledger in 2008.

No. The opioid overdose crisis is already the ripe old age of 20 - and despite heightened public awareness it shows no signs of slowing with age.

Witness news this week from the Minnesota Department of Health that the number of Minnesotans who died from drug overdoses grew 9.2 percent from 2015 to 2016. Of those 583 people, the St. Paul Pioneer Press noted, 186 died from prescription opioids despite fewer such prescriptions being issued.

As a St. Cloud Times report stated, the number of drug overdose deaths in the state in 2016 is nearly six times higher than it was in 2000. That ratio holds somewhat true for Central Minnesota while outstate Minnesota’s 2016 number is more than 10 times that of 2000.

Sadly, that’s similar to the rest of the nation. Since 1999-2000, overdose deaths in the U.S. from prescription painkillers have roughly quadrupled.

Most troubling, though, is these numbers keep rising despite so much public awareness, which includes everything from massive educational efforts to mass distribution of medications that can stop an overdose from being fatal.

It’s enough to make you wonder: What’s it going to take for America to curb this addiction epidemic?

A big part of the solution is no different than what experts started suggesting when this deadly trend became clear about 10 years ago. Doctors (and patients) need to be acutely aware of opioid-based pain medications to the point of shifting pain-management plans away from them.

Two other key answers are continued attention and increased resources.

President Trump provided potential for big doses of both last month when he announced he would declare the opioid crisis a national emergency.

As USA Today reported last week, that was the top recommendation from a White House commission he formed earlier this year to study the problem.

However, it’s now been more than a month since the president said he would make the declaration and he has yet to officially do it.

That’s disheartening, especially when treatment experts tell USA Today such a declaration would allow more people to be treated for opiate addiction, especially those who rely on Medicaid for such coverage.

Trump’s commission also offered these important ideas:

- Mandate physician education initiatives to ensure that health care providers do not over-prescribe opioids, a major driver of the epidemic.

- Increase funding for medicated-assisted treatment, a highly effective regime to curb opioid addiction.

- Encourage states to expand access to Naloxone and allow the federal government to negotiate reduced prices for that life-saving opioid reversal medication.

However, curbing the epidemic is more than the job of the federal government.

States, especially through education and human service programs, can keep working to educate people of all ages about opioids. Meanwhile, new ideas also deserve to be heard.

After all, America has had this conversation for almost two decades and to be candid, those talks just aren’t proving effective.


Post Bulletin, Sept. 16

Lake Vermilion state park is a testament to leadership

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty hasn’t been in the news much since his short-lived bid for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. He eventually became co-chair of Mitt Romney’s campaign, but he left that post before Romney’s defeat and became a D.C. lobbyist and largely vanished from Minnesota’s political landscape.

But today his name is being mentioned again in his home state, and for a very good reason.

Not every politician is able to leave an important legacy, but Pawlenty did with his work on creating Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park, which officially opened this week. It’s Minnesota’s first new full-service state park in 25 years, and without Pawlenty’s leadership, it wouldn’t exist.

The 33 campsites, complete with shower facilities and a boat launch, are on land once owned by U.S. Steel. In 2007, the area in St. Louis County was on the verge of being sold off and developed into lakeshore homes for the super-rich.

Pawlenty suggested a state park instead, but locals gave that idea a cool reception. County officials and nearly every legislator from the Iron Range preferred private development and the tax revenue it would produce.

Fortunately, Pawlenty had an unlikely and powerful ally - DFL Sen. Tom Bakk, who grew up near Lake Vermilion and wanted to make sure this northern jewel wasn’t turned into a private playground for the wealthy. Bakk and Pawlenty proved to be a powerful team, spearheading the state’s $18 million purchase of more than 3,000 acres and 10 miles of undeveloped shoreline.

The park that now occupies some of this land is as much Bakk’s legacy as Pawlenty’s.

This isn’t an old-school state park. It’s built for the modern family that likes the idea of a semi-private wilderness getaway but also wants some of the comforts of home. Electricity, hot showers and flush toilets are available, and when the rains come, forget about boring evenings in the tent or RV. Wi-Fi towers throughout the park provide strong, free connection to the internet.

Yes, that means when the whole family is out paddling kayaks among the islands of Lake Vermilion, mom and dad can post photos to Facebook while the kids take a break to Snapchat with their friends back in civilization. Perhaps that’s not what Bakk and Pawlenty had in mind, but it’ll work out just fine.

The opening of Lake Vermilion State Park should be a reminder that carving out and creating state parks takes courage, vision and patience. Given that it took 10 years to transform U.S. Steel’s lakefront property into a wild and scenic area for all Minnesotans to enjoy, there’s no time to waste getting started on the next one.

We can do better than launch a new state park every 25 years. All it takes, for starters, is the vision and commitment of people in leadership.

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