‘Community immunity’ is best for everyone

December 7, 2012 

The flu season is just getting under way in the South Sound, causing most people to visit their doctor, pharmacy or grocery store for a flu shot. But most is not good enough to protect the entire community.

Too many people still have questions, concerns and unwarranted fears about vaccinations, and choosing to skip a flu shot, or to get the full slate of immunizations for their young children, puts the entire community at risk.

The heart of the debate over immunization for communicable diseases boils down to trust. Whom do you trust is giving you the most accurate, up-to-date information?

Mary Selecky, secretary of the Washington State Department of Health, thinks individuals and parents should trust their health care provider, not pop culture celebrities.

Innumerable scientific studies have debunked the myth that vaccines are dangerous, including a 1998 study linking autism to vaccines. Several celebrities, including Oprah and Jenny McCarthy, gave that study a high profile until it was exposed as an elaborate fraud.

In the meantime, however, the damage was done. Immunization rates dropped significantly.

Despite all of the scientific data proving the safety of vaccines and their public health benefits, skepticism remains within a small percentage of the national population. That skepticism is strongest on the West Coast, including the state of Washington, which until recently lagged the nation in child immunization rates.

That was one factor in the state’s recent incidence of whooping cough cases rising to epidemic levels. The number of cases began increasing last year and reached a peak of about 260 new cases being reported per week last spring. To date, Washington has recorded 4,593 cases statewide in 2012, compared with 699 last year.

To combat misinformation on the Internet and being promoted by talk show hosts and entertainers, Selecky’s Health Department has transformed how it does business. With the public’s trust shaken by nonexperts, health officials can no longer rely on scientific data alone.

The DOH now partners with organizations such as Vax Northwest, Group Health and Within Reach to reach parents through peer-to-peer interactions.

These groups have launched a pilot program to encourage the silent majority of parents who do fully immunize their children (about 75 percent to 80 percent in Washington) to speak up. The message is that when more children are immunized, fewer people are at risk, and that reduces the cost of public health and the health care system in general.

The concept of “community immunity” is how the world has eradicated major killer diseases. Vaccines eliminated smallpox, which killed more than 500 million people, and has nearly vanquished polio, which paralyzed 16,000 Americans as recently as the 1950s.

The DOH is also partnering with insurance companies to continue a program that supplied doctor’s offices with less expensive vaccines purchased through statewide bulk buys. The program was a victim of recent state budget cuts, but the DOH asked insurers to step up financially so the expense of immunization didn’t present a barrier to anyone.

The South Sound flu season peaks in February and March, but the state health department encourages everyone to get a shot early. Contrary to what someone might have said, you can’t get the flu from a flu shot. At worst, you get a sore arm.

According to Health Department experts, if you think you had the flu and it wasn’t any big deal, it wasn’t the flu.

Get a flu shot today, and help protect the rest of us.

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