CHICAGO – When it comes to immunizations for infants and young children, Chicago is the "comeback kid."
Chicago was awarded “Most Improved City” for its nearly 75 percent vaccination rate for infants in 2011 -- a 7 percent increase over the previous year. And the city’s public health department was credited with the turn-around.
So can Chicago families stop worrying about measles, mumps and whooping cough?
“Not by a long shot,” said Dr. Andrew Kroger, medical director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In a roundtable discussion with members of the city’s ethnic media this week, Kroger said parents need to keep immunizing their children each year to fight off 14 vaccine-preventable diseases before they turn two.
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; and since the beginning of this year, there have been a total of 897 cases of whooping cough reported in Washington State.
The 14 vaccine-preventable diseases hit hardest among the very young. Of the 27 Americans who died from whooping cough in 2010, 25 of those deaths were babies less than one year old. In Illinois last year, where 1,000 cases of whooping cough were reported, one-third of them 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. Don't wait until they enroll in school to vaccinate them. Infants are “most vulnerable to serious illness,” she said, and the contagious nature of many of these diseases - measles, for example - means that "one case can spread very easily."
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,” that provides free vaccines to children from lower-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 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 are now covered at 66.9 percent, whites at 69 percent and Hispanics have the highest immunization rates, at 73 percent.
The key to the high 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 health care insurance often have multiple doctors and don’t always get that customized advice from a trusted health care 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 they are coming from, she added.
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 of the CDC. “They are a foundation of wellness.”
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