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New county Health Board member explains vaccine position

by KIANNA GARDNER
Daily Inter Lake | February 26, 2020 2:00 AM

While many have criticized the Flathead County commissioners’ appointment of Dr. Annie Bukacek to the Flathead City-County Health Department’s Board of Health in December — largely over her views on vaccinations — Bukacek said the claim she’s an “anti-vaccine advocate” is incorrect and lacks context.

Bukacek is the founder of Hosanna Healthcare in Kalispell and director of the Montana Pro-Life Coalition. She’s been a Flathead Valley resident for nearly 30 years and holds a medical degree from the University of Illinois. And she has significant reservations about the vaccine industry.

While many describe Bukacek as an “anti-vaccine advocate” — or what is known widely as an “anti-vaxxer” for short — she described her viewpoint as “pro-informed choice.”

“It is false to say I am anti-vaccine,” Bukacek said. “I don’t try to dissuade my patients from getting vaccines. Most of my patients are up-to-date on their vaccines.”

Instead of using language such as “anti” or “pro,” which can be polarizing, she said her thoughts on vaccines fall somewhere closer to the middle.

“I strongly recommend guardians of children educate themselves about the risks as well as the benefits so they can make informed decisions for the health of their children,” Bukacek said.

Those risks, she emphasized, range from severe allergic reactions to death — side effects that are still possible, albeit very rare. These details, Bukacek noted, are “rarely discussed at length” with patients and she “implores parents to inform themselves” before taking their kids to get vaccinated.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also provides such details on its website and elsewhere stating, “vaccines are continually monitored for safety and like any medication, vaccines can cause side effects. However, a decision not to immunize a child also involves risk and could put the child and others who come into contact with him or her at risk of contracting a potentially deadly disease.” The CDC and other organizations, including the World Health Organization, also highlight how most side effects to vaccines are minor, such as sore arms or low-grade fevers and go away within a few days.

But Bukacek aims to highlight those more severe, yet rare risks.

“Patients are told routinely that vaccines are safe. For the most part, they are not given any evidence to the contrary,” Bukacek said.

She said she became more interested in sharing such information with her patients in 2009, when she discovered the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program for the first time.

The program was created in the 1980s after lawsuits against vaccine companies and health-care providers threatened to cause vaccine shortages and reduce U.S. vaccination rates, which “could have caused a resurgence of vaccine-preventable disease,” according to the Health Resources and Services Administration website. The program may provide financial compensation to individuals who file a petition and are found to have been injured by a vaccine covered under the program, and even with cases in which such a finding is not made, petitioners may receive compensation through a settlement.

“It [the program] made it clear to me that these vaccines are not as safe as I was taught,” Bukacek said.

She added it should be a red flag that the program is centered around suing the government, not the vaccine manufacturers, saying “if a manufacturer puts an unsafe product out on the market that harms consumers of that product, shouldn’t the maker be held accountable?”

Aside from pointing out concerns related to the program and the presentation of vaccine risks being “inadequate,” Bukacek also discussed qualms with “herd immunity,” which according to the CDC is “a situation in which a sufficient proportion of a population is immune to an infectious disease to make its spread from person to person unlikely.”

WHILE BUKACEK is outspoken about her views on vaccines, including a video on the home page of Hosanna Healthcare’s website, she said it was not her focus for wanting to join the Board of Health.

“I have many years of leadership statewide, working toward the betterment of health-care provision and I wanted to serve at the county and city level,” Bukacek said.

According to Bukacek, she will be serving as supervisor for the department’s home-health committee, which is something she “feels very passionate towards.” The department’s home-health services offers patients professional care without leaving home for treatment.

Still, Bukacek’s appointment to the board evoked disappointment from many local residents and professionals.

During the December Board of Health meeting, one former board member said the appointment flies in the face of the health department’s goal to reach a greater than 90% to 95% vaccination rate for children in the Flathead Valley and urged other members to “prevent this county from returning to 19th century medicine.”

In 2019, health officials warned a decline in the vaccination rate among Flathead County students was posing a major health risk to the valley. Department data shows the vaccination rate in 2018-2019 was at 92.6% down from 93.7%. Ideally, department officials say that number should be closer to 95% to ensure herd immunity.

Bukacek was one of two new board members appointed, the second being Ardis Larsen, wife of local engineer and Flathead County Planning Board member Jeff Larsen. Bukacek and Larsen replaced longtime board members David Meyerowtiz and Wayne Miller and will serve three-year terms through December 2022.

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4407 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com