Twenty-eight years ago, immunization of school children was a low priority in our state, according to former state representative and College of Pharmacy alumni Dennis S. Pena. He promised to do something about it as he ran for office in 1974. His big concerns were the multitude of cases of diphtheria and pertussis being seen in the state and the half dozen cases of polio looming over the border in northern Mexico at the time. He stated that there were three children who died of diphtheria on the way to Albuquerque hospitals from the Gallup school district alone that year. New Mexico was then ranked 49th in the nation in immunized school children.
Immediately upon his election to the state House of Representatives in November of 1974, he was appointed by the Speaker of the House to the Health and Aging Interim Committee. His appointment occurred an entire month and a half ahead of his freshman legislator class and provided him the opportunity to work immediately on health care issues. "I expected the immunization legislation an easy run through the house and senate up to the governor's office considering the gravity of the immunization problem at that time, but at my first committee hearing in the House, there were seven school superintendents from around the state, including the superintendent from Gallup, who came to oppose the bill. " It seems, according to Pena, that their opposition was based on their contention that superintendents already had too many other responsibilities to be concerned with what they considered the lesser problem of immunization. "As a brand new freshman legislator I could already smell the loss of my bill- not because of the lack of need for it, but lobbying on pharmacy issues as an officer of NMPHA many times, I could tell the superintendents had done their committee work and my bill was going to go down the drain. I didn't want to lose my first piece of legislation, so I pulled my bill out of committee." Pena promised the committee he would return later with new legislation transferring the responsibilities of immunization over to the school nurses in each district. That statement brought the superintendents on board, for they had no intention of giving up any rights that they already had. From that point, the superintendents worried that then
Representative Pena might revive the nurse issue, backed his bill through both the House and Senate and on to the governor, who signed it with an emergency clause so there would be no delays in implementing the legislation for the 1975-76 school year.
What resulted was fairly impressive. "We received results of the legislation in late October of that year. We had gone from 49th to number one in the nation in immunization -- we received not only national, but international acclaim, for we had accomplished the feat in less than six months," Pena stated.
Still excited about New Mexico's accomplishment in 1975 and knowing that the school immunization bill still has New Mexico ranked in the top five nationwide for school age children, he now is concerned that we have just a few months ago, been ranked 49th again in immunization for children by age two.
One big success for immunization rates in New Mexico was legislature passing an immunization registry to be made available by the Department of Health, in conjunction with Human Services Department to all health care providers to coordinate efforts to get all young children and babies in the state immunized, hopefully by the age of two.
Pena states that hopefully all the coalition's and health department's efforts will work but we should be willing, able and ready to implement by further legislation, if necessary, "to obligate immunizations as we have done with the school age children. There are several ways possible to do this, such as tying state birth certificates or social security numbers to instate births, and green cards, automobile or driver's licenses, to those coming in from out of state and out of country, for legal compliance within specific time frames."
In recognition of the years of effort in immunizing New Mexico's children, Dennis Pena received a special award from the New Mexico Immunization Coalition in December.
Contact: Angela Heisel, 272-3322