Eighty-five percent of West Virginia’s toddlers are vaccinated against measles — but the far more important number is the 15 percent who are not, a federal health official said Tuesday.
The U.S. is experiencing a measles outbreak, and more than 300 cases have been reported in neighboring Ohio this year. For Dr. Anne Schuchat, an assistant U.S. surgeon general and the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the problem lies with poor vaccination rates: The fewer who are vaccinated against a disease within a population, the more likely a widespread outbreak can occur.
“In West Virginia, with 15 percent of toddlers without the [measles, mumps and rubella] vaccine, that’s enough young children where you could have an outbreak that would be difficult to control,” she said.
Schuchat was in Charleston Tuesday as the keynote speaker for Immunization Summit 2014, a conference of more than 250 attendees, including nurses, doctors, health-care providers, state health officials and public partners gathered to explore strategies for increased vaccination rates for all age groups.
The two-day event, now in its fifth year, is being held in conjunction with KidStrong, an education conference coordinated by the state Department of Education and designed to find ways of improving overall wellness for schoolchildren. Attendees to both conferences are welcome to attend sessions and speeches interchangeably, according to Elaine Darling, program manager for the West Virginia Immunization Network, which organized the event.
Measles is an infection of the respiratory system, immune system and skin. In addition to the infamous spotty skin rash, symptoms include lethargy, fever, severe cough and sinus drainage.
While the U.S. has eliminated homegrown measles through vaccinations, Schuchat said, the current outbreaks are the result of the disease being brought into the country from overseas. Cases have been reported in 20 states so far, and Schuchat said that although the disease doesn’t kill frequently — it results in death in nearly one in 1,000 cases — complications from the disease, including pneumonia and bacterial infection, can cause problems, especially for children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.
“There are a couple of factors contributing to this spike. Most of the cases this year involve people who were never vaccinated against measles, and most were offered the vaccine and did not want to be vaccinated. We call them ‘philosophical exempters,’ or people who have beliefs against vaccinating,” she said. “It’s something you see in different communities to a larger or smaller extent.”
Many of the measles cases in Ohio can be traced to the state’s relatively large Amish population, she said.
Strong opposition to vaccination first arose more than a decade ago, when a research article was published linking vaccines to autism. The article was later discredited, and Schuchat said any link between vaccines and autism has since been disproved.
“We think it’s really important for people to know that the MMR vaccine is safe, effective, that it doesn’t cause autism, it doesn’t cause long-term neurological problems,” she said. “There were concerns about that about 15 years ago, but they’ve since been totally debunked.”
Schuchat said parents shouldn’t worry about the cost of vaccinating their children either — the CDC’s Vaccines for Children Program allows for free vaccinations provided through the state for those who don’t have health insurance.
Adults are another major focus of the state Immunization Network, Darling said. Unlike children, who are required by law to be vaccinated in order to attend school, many adults may go without vaccinations for decades.
“With West Virginia being as rural as it is, there are some counties where it may be very difficult for people to find a provider to administer a vaccine or ensure their children’s vaccines are up to date,” Darling said. “That’s part of why we hold this conference — so they can learn more about how to overcome those barriers and learn how to network with other health-care providers to overcome those barriers together.”
Sara Hedrick, a registered nurse with the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, worked the conference Tuesday, where the KCHD offered hepatitis A, hepatitis B, Tdap and pneumococcal vaccines to adults attending the conference. According to Hedrick, the clinic vaccinated more than a dozen adults Tuesday morning.
“I’d tell anyone that if they care about their kids, other kids and even themselves, that vaccines have been studied, they’ve been around for a long time — we wouldn’t give anything we didn’t feel was safe, and they really need to consider protecting others,” she said. “If they’re not concerned about themselves, I’m sure there’s someone they care about that they would consider protecting.”
The summit continues Wednesday at the Charleston Civic Center. For more on the West Virginia Immunization Network, visit www.immunizenow.org.
Reach Lydia Nuzum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5189.