WASHINGTON – The nation’s chief immunologist told lawmakers that vaccines to prevent measles and other communicable diseases do not present a risk and that renewed educational efforts are necessary to make sure children get their shots.
Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, told members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that overall vaccination rates remain high but challenges remain because some parents continue to refuse to get their children vaccinated.
Despite the CDC’s efforts, the U.S. is experiencing the highest number of measles cases in the past 20 years. More than 600 instances of measles have been reported, driven in large measure by a substantial outbreak of 383 cases occurring in unvaccinated Amish communities in Ohio.
“Although we aren’t sure exactly how this year’s outbreak began, we assume that someone got infected overseas, visited the parks and spread the disease to others,” Schuchat said. “Infected people in this outbreak here in the United States this year have exposed others in a variety of settings including school, daycares, emergency departments, outpatient clinics and airplanes. Frontline public health workers and clinicians across the country are following up on suspected measles cases in light of the recent outbreak.”
Even small numbers of cases, Schuchat said, can lead to the re-emergence of vaccine-preventable diseases (VPDs) if the number of unvaccinated individuals climbs. There are several reasons parents refuse to have their children vaccinated despite “overwhelming and consistent scientific evidence that vaccines are safe and effective.”
“For some, many VPDs don’t have the visibility they once had and many parents tell researchers that they question whether the vaccines are more dangerous for their child than the disease they prevent,” Schuchat said. “Parents also have access to conflicting and often inaccurate information about vaccines via the internet and others express concern that there are too many vaccines.”
For instance, she told the panel, rumors persist that the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella – popularly known as MMR – may result in autism. Tests have established conclusively that’s not the case.
“High measles vaccine coverage and rapid public health response are critical for preventing and controlling measles cases and outbreaks,” Schuchat said. “While overall measles vaccination coverage rates are high at 92 percent, one in 12 children in the United States is not receiving his first dose of measles-mumps-rubella vaccine on time, underscoring considerable measles susceptibility across the country.”
And numbers vary from state-to-state. In 2013 17 states reported that less than 90 percent of toddlers had received at least one dose of MMR.
“As the current outbreak demonstrates, we cannot become complacent to the threat of VPDs as the current increase in measles cases has shown us,” she said. “CDC’s priorities for the coming year focus on keeping the American public prepared to respond to such threats.”
That effort, she said, includes educating and engaging healthcare providers and the American public on the science about vaccines.
“It has been said many times that vaccines are one of public health’s greatest achievements,” she said. “The immunization of children in the United States has saved millions of lives, contributed to longer life expectancy, reduced health disparities, improved quality of life and saved trillions of dollars in societal costs. Immunizations have become a routine part of how we care for our children.”
In response to the current outbreak, Schuchat said, the CDC on Jan. 23 issued a health advisory to notify public health departments and healthcare facilities about the multi-state outbreak and to provide guidance for healthcare providers nationwide.
“The increase in measles cases should be seen as a wake-up call,” she said. “Our immunization system has risen to challenges in the past and CDC is committed to keeping measles and other VPDs from regaining a foothold in the United States again. The very large outbreaks we have seen around the world often started with a small number of cases. Working together, we can keep these numbers down, keep measles from returning and threatening the health of our communities and sustain the enormous health and societal benefits that our immunization partnership has achieved.”
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), a physician, asked Schuchat how many individuals infected in a recent California measles outbreak “were native born Americans and how many had immigrated here?”
Schuchat responded by noting that most of the VSPs imported into the U.S. each year “are in Americans who are traveling abroad and come back.” She further noted that the infestation likely wasn’t caused by illegal immigrants since many of their home countries have higher vaccination rates than the U.S. and that in recent years Latin America “really took on the elimination of measles.”
In a rare bipartisan moment, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the committee chairman, and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the ranking member, both expressed support for expanding vaccinations.
Alexander said it’s “troubling” to hear about the measles outbreak, a disease “eliminated in the U.S. 15 years ago.” He asserted that “too many parents are turning away from sound science” and that vaccines “save the lives of the people who are vaccinated. They protect the lives of the vulnerable around them — like infants and those who are ill.”
“Vaccines save lives,” he said. “They protect us from the ravages of awful diseases like polio, which invades the nervous system and can cause paralysis. Or whooping cough, which causes thick mucus to accumulate in the airways and can make it difficult for infants to breathe. Or, diphtheria, a bacterial infection that affects the mucous membranes of your nose and throat and can, in advanced stages, damage your heart, kidneys and nervous system.”
Murray said vaccines “are truly one of our country’s greatest public health successes. Thanks to them, we know how to prevent illnesses that struck so many children as recently as a generation or two ago—like polio, whooping cough, or measles.”
“But recent news about the measles outbreak in many states, including my home state of Washington, made clear that vaccine-preventable diseases are still a threat, and that we can’t afford to become complacent about protecting the progress we’ve made. Bottom line, this means children across the country need to be vaccinated.”
One committee member who failed to attend the hearing was Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who is eyeing a run for president in 2016. Paul recently stirred controversy when he said he was aware of “many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.”
He added, “I’m not arguing vaccines are a bad idea. I think they are a good thing. But I think the parent should have some input. The state doesn’t own your children. Parents own the children. And it is an issue of freedom and public health.”