National Immunization Awareness Month gives us a great opportunity to talk about the need to improve national immunization coverage levels. Vaccine-preventable diseases are becoming increasingly rare in the US because vaccines are effective, but that doesn’t mean we should stop vaccinating. Even though most infants and toddlers have received all recommended vaccines by age 2, there are still many under-immunized children, for various reasons. There are also under-immunized adolescents and adults. When a large portion of the community is under-immunized, there’s an increased risk of disease outbreaks. A good example is the pertussis or whooping cough outbreak in Arizona this past year. Most of the cases are in children and a majority of them are unvaccinated or not up-to-date on their pertussis vaccine.
Although coverage levels in Arizona are pretty good, there’s an increasing trend in more parents opting out of vaccinating their children. Earlier this year I highlighted some of the preliminary results from a U of A study focusing on vaccine choice. The results of this study highlight that personal belief exemptions are on the rise in our state. It’s hard to counter some arguments about why parents don’t vaccinate their children, but we can make sure parents know what they’re missing. This summer, our immunization team revamped all the exemption forms. The new forms have the parents acknowledge each vaccine they are skipping and initial that they understand the loss of protection for the child. Parents can get the new exemption forms from their school or childcare provider.
Rising exemptions puts the whole community at risk. Herd immunity (vaccination of a significant portion in the community) helps keep the most vulnerable Arizonans (those who medically can’t receive vaccines) safe from debilitating and deadly diseases. So this back to school season, let’s all do our best to encourage our friends and family to get up-to-date with the recommended vaccinations to keep everyone in our community safe from vaccine-preventable diseases!
The Departments of Economic Security and Health Services are partnering together in educating the public on the importance of making an informed decision when it involves vaccinating your children. I invite you to view a similar blog by my agency counterpart, Economic Security Director Clarence Carter.
Is AZDHS going to implement any time soon (like NOW) an accelerated immunization schedule for infants given the continued and increasing number of pertussis cases in AZ? This last week there are two confirmed cases in the school district (Vail School District) where my practice is, and I know, as a pediatrician who has been here for almost 10 years that there are a lot of unvaccinated school children as well as a lot of newborns here. When I was a pediatric resident from 2000-2003 in Tucson, the accelerated vaccine schedule was used during a pertussis outbreak. I truly fear by not implementing a 6-10-14 week immunization schedule, we are placing our youngest Arizonans at even higher risk. I would also urge you to consider, if there wind up being more than these 2 cases in the Vail School District, that you enforce AZ vaccine exemption law and demand that the unvaccinated children at schools here with pertussis either immediately be vaccinated or immediately be sent home for the duration of the outbreak. I don’t ask these things lightly. You had an infant die from pertussis in Phoenix last year and there was an infant that almost died of pertussis in Tucson this April (http://azstarnet.com/news/science/health-med-fit/tiny-bryanna-beats-the-odds-but-her-harrowing-case-illustrates/article_49d21ed2-9f85-5e01-8466-d249abaf13d7.html). Please don’t keep “staying the course”. AZDHS needs to be more aggressive for the safety of our kids
-Chris Hickie, MD, PhD