Winter weather blasted much of the nation last week, but it’s not just the common cold that Americans are fighting. Many regions, regardless of temperature, are also being pummeled by a different phenomenon – vaccine-preventable diseases.
In San Diego, new cases of flu have spiked to more than five times the prior three-year-average. And in Chattanooga, officials report that rates have tripled from this time last year. In fact, most areas are experiencing widespread activity, yet many people haven’t gotten the flu shot. Granted, this year’s vaccine is only 10-30 percent effective, but it can still be beneficial, especially for pregnant women and new moms.
While experts keep one eye on the flu, they’re also watching for a potential surge of the measles, a disease that was “eliminated” in 2000. A 2015 outbreak that started at Disneyland ushered in reforms to vaccine exemption laws across the nation. Texas, however, has not changed its stance. Now, a record-number of parents are exempting their children from routine vaccination. The state experienced a 19-fold increase in exemptions to school immunization laws between 2003 and 2016, leading some to predict it could be ground zero for the next measles epidemic.
A similar downward trend for vaccination coverage is emerging in pockets across the country. And with it comes increasing rates of highly infectious, easily transmitted diseases.
There were nearly 50 percent more cases of measles in 2017 than in 2016. Cases of mumps have also risen in recent years, due to lack of vaccine protection. Children receive protection from measles, mumps and rubella when they complete the MMR series, a vaccination that has prevented millions of cases of disease, permanent neurologic complication, intellectual disability and death since its introduction in the 1970s.
Just as the ongoing debate about immunizations will continue, so too will outbreaks like these. There are, however, opportunities to improve public safety and increase protection by revisiting exemption policies and publishing school immunization rates to raise awareness.
In California, state Senator Richard Pan wants to consider whether last year’s effort to tighten exemption policies was tough enough. Since the legislature prohibited religious and personal belief exemptions for school children’s vaccinations, the state has seen a record-high number of medical exemptions. Sen. Pan worries that some doctors may be skirting existing regulations by writing unnecessary or improper medical exemptions.
Meanwhile, in Kentucky, policymakers added the hepatitis A vaccination and a meningitis booster to their required schedule for the 2018-19 school year. These additions underscore the value of immunizations as an effective method of limiting the spread of debilitating diseases, yet the state continues to allow exemptions with just a parent signature on a form.
Seasonal sniffles may be unavoidable, but vaccine-preventable diseases are not. Policy has and continues to play an important role in allowing vaccines to protect families, schools and communities across the country.