CHICAGO – On the eve of National Infant Immunization Week (NIIW), Chicago was awarded “Most Improved City” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for reaching nearly a 75 percent vaccination rate for infants in 2011, representing a 7 percent increase over the previous year. The city’s public health department was largely credited with the turn-around.
NIIW has been observed annually since 1994, and was created to highlight the continued need for infant vaccinations that can protect against preventable and potentially deadly diseases. This year, NIIW falls on April 21 – 28.
So can Chicago families stop worrying about measles, mumps and pertussis?
“Not by a long shot,” said CDC medical director Dr. Andrew Kroger. In a roundtable discussion with members of Chicago’s ethnic media last week, Kroger said the CDC is continuing to encourage parents to vaccinate their children under 2 years-old to fight off 14 vaccine-preventable diseases. Despite a general acceptance of vaccinations, hundreds of children nationwide continue to contract diseases that completely preventable.
Kroger cited 222 reported cases of measles in the U.S. in 2011. Another 27 people died from pertussis (also known as “whooping cough”) last year. The early numbers for 2012 are also troubling. Since the beginning of 2012, there have been a total of 897 cases of whooping cough reported in Washington State alone.
Of all age groups, the “very young” have been hit the hardest by preventable disease. Of the 27 Americans who died from whooping cough in 2011, 25 were babies less than one year old. In Illinois last year, where 1,000 cases of whooping cough were reported, one-third were children younger than seven.
“Vaccinate your infants before the age of two,” was the resounding message from Dr. Julie Morita, who directs the Chicago Department of Public Health’s Immunization Program. Morita stressed that parents should not wait until their children enroll in school to vaccinate them. The contagious nature of many of the diseases, such as measles, she said, means that “one case can spread very easily.” Infants are “most vulnerable to serious illness,” said Morita.
Despite Chicago’s success rate in getting children vaccinated over the last two decades, one in four children here have not received all the vaccines they need. “Parents may think that they cannot afford to pay for the vaccines,” Morita said. “We want parents to be aware of the federal Vaccines for Children (VFC) Program,” she said. VFC provides free vaccines to children from low-income families.
In order to educate more families about free vaccines, health workers are spreading out across the city, taking the message to different neighborhoods and communities. Lisa Kritz, project director for the Chicago Area Immunization Campaign, is leading the campaign that sends vans to “pockets of need” in the city.
Stopping at laundromats, beauty parlors, churches, and Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Centers with the message, “You’re not done at age one,” they also employ text messages to remind mothers when their child is due for their next immunization shot, through a program called “Text for Baby.” So far, 14,000 people have signed up.
“It’s this kind of ground-level community outreach work that’s led to a lessening of disparities in immunizations rates,” Kritz said. African Americans in Chicago are now covered at 66.9 percent, whites at 69 percent and Hispanics have the highest immunization rates, at 73 percent.
Key to the improved coverage rates in Chicago’s Hispanic community is a high level of trust in doctors and health care providers as a whole, according to Dr. Daniel Perez, who works as a pediatrician in the Little Village neighborhood.
Misinformation about vaccinations, such as the myth that people get sick from shots, has also lessened, he said. He added that Medicaid patients often have a better record of vaccination than those with private health care insurance, because they often know their doctor. Those with private health care insurance often have multiple doctors and don’t always get that customized advice from a trusted provider.
Yet there is one obstacle that experts admit may be somewhat beyond their reach — Chicago’s global proximity. With thousands of travelers coming in and out of O’Hare International Airport each day, some diseases are just “a plane ride away,” said Morita. And it’s not just the developing world where diseases are being contracted, she said.
The World Health Organization’s European Region, for example, reported about 35,000 cases of measles in 2011. A new wave of “vaccine hesitancy” in France and Italy has resulted in unvaccinated Americans returning from trips abroad having contracted measles, Morita said. Some unvaccinated individuals were too young to receive the measles vaccine before they traveled, some may not have been aware of the need to be vaccinated and others may have refused the vaccine. Parents who are traveling to Western Europe with a baby six-months of age and older, she said, need to get vaccinated before they go.
Vaccines are “a cornerstone of public health,” said Kroger. “They are a foundation of wellness.”