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CDC shouldn’t waver on meningitis vaccine

Melinda Gates once said, “Having children made us look differently at all these things that we take for granted, like taking your child to get a vaccine against measles or polio.”

Unfortunately, not all parents in our state share her sentiment. In a study released last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that Washington ranked last in the nation in vaccination rates among kindergarteners. According to the study, one out of every 16 children in Washington had not been immunized because their parents chose not to.

These findings are particularly disturbing considering vaccine-preventable diseases that had been virtually eliminated in the U.S. are making a comeback in Seattle, Spokane and across the state.

To reverse this trend, we need to recommit to making the vaccination of all children a top public health priority.

Thanks to organizations across the state such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, PATH and The Washington Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, we are stepping up efforts to get more information to parents and doctors.

Today, our nation is at an important crossroads. The question before us is this: Do we turn our backs on vaccines – the greatest public health innovation in modern history – or do we fight to give families access to the next generation of vaccines that will prevent less common but more deadly diseases?

Seemingly on cue, the CDC came to Seattle this week to host its second in a series of regional community meetings on whether to add infant meningitis vaccines to the immunization schedule. The good news for parents is that the Food and Drug Administration has already approved one meningitis vaccine for infants, and others may soon follow.

However, despite the fact that meningitis is a leading cause of preventable infant death and the CDC’s estimates show that infants younger than 1 year old are three to seven times more likely to contract meningococcal disease, CDC has not yet committed to adding meningitis vaccines to the routine infant immunization schedule.

The CDC’s decision on meningitis vaccines will have wide-ranging impacts.

First, a routine recommendation for these immunizations will allow shots to be covered by the Vaccines for Children Program, which authorizes the federal government to pay for vaccines for low-income families. Without a routine schedule recommendation, only relatively affluent parents will be able to afford the infant meningitis shots. This would deny six out of every 10 infants access to life-saving vaccines because their parents are lower income.

Second, a routine recommendation will provide state health departments with resources to educate the public and track the vaccine’s use.

Third, we know preventive care is much less costly to state and local governments than dealing with the long-term complications associated with surviving meningitis. Those infants who manage to defeat death are often severely disabled and face a lifetime of surgeries and other ongoing services that will affect their quality of life.

There is no good reason that CDC should be wavering on recommending safe and effective vaccines that we know will save lives. While gathering public input is important, what message is the CDC’s “listening tour” sending to parents, especially in our state where there is already a reluctance to immunize?

One look at Washington state’s dismal vaccination rates will tell you that now is not the time for the CDC – the world’s premier public health organization – to be sending parents and physicians mixed signals. Shouldn’t our federal government be confident in using sound science to make far-reaching public health decisions?

Now more than ever, Washington’s parents need bold leadership from the CDC.

John Driscoll is a health care executive and consultant from Spokane, as well as a former member of the Washington state House of Representatives. He can be reached at jdriscoll57@gmail.com.