Health officials work to raise childhood immunization rates
When a group of public health nurses saw the low rate—lower than some underdeveloped countries—they decided to form a team within their office, the Rock County Health Department, said Deb Erickson, public health nurse supervisor.
"That's exciting that we've at least been able to bring it up," she said.
Health officials would like to see the rate higher than 90 percent, she said.
The rate refers to 2-year-olds who have received the entire schedule of immunizations, so a child who missed even one would be considered not fully immunized.
The data showed health officials that it wasn't one particular vaccine that kids were missing.
"We found a real hodgepodge of vaccines that were missing," Erickson said. "That was concerning."
The group got the message out to parents about the immunization schedule through day cares, schools and clinics. Each public health nurse was assigned to area clinics to be a resource because immunizations are one of the health department's specialties, Erickson said. A newsletter also was started to arm providers with information.
Officials haven't seen a big difference in rates between areas of the county. They're excited, though, about a new feature coming soon to the state's immunization registry that will show if there are any pockets of residents that aren't immunized, Erickson said.
It's important for a community to have "herd immunity" against the range of diseases—from polio to chicken pox—that childhood immunizations protect against, Erickson said.
"If a greater number of people are vaccinated, it makes it harder for the disease to even come into the area because they don't have any susceptible people to get the disease," she said.
A vaccine not only protects the person who receives it, she said, but also adds to the herd immunity—thus protecting those who have conditions that don't allow immunizations.
Most of the vaccines the health department gives are 90 percent effective, she said.
Don Janczak, director of pharmacy at Mercy Health System, said there's "absolutely no excuse" for an incomplete series of childhood immunizations.
"I think overall in health care, we have to do a better job in preventing diseases than reacting when patients have diseases—do both, but do a better job in prevention," he said. "That's where vaccines come in."
One example is whooping cough, or pertussis, a very contagious bacterial respiratory disease. Rock County has seen the number of cases spike in recent years. Only one case was confirmed in 2008, followed by 18 cases in 2009, four last year and eight confirmed or probable this year.
An outbreak last year in California of more than 9,000 reported cases included 10 infant deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Those most at-risk for pertussis include newborns, who can't receive the vaccine until 2 months of age. Mercy doctors have focused on newborns through a "cocooning effect," Janczak said. A newborn's mother, family members and other caretakers should all receive the Tdap vaccine, which protects against whooping cough, he said.
Before 2005, only children younger than 7 could get the pertussis vaccine, according to the CDC. When Tdap was licensed in 2005, it became the first vaccine for adolescents and adults that protects against pertussis, diphtheria and tetanus.
That's why Mercy's initiative has focused on postpartum and emergency room settings, Janczak said. People who come to the ER with a wound requiring a tetanus shot now are given the tetanus that includes the life-long pertussis vaccine, he said.
Health officials trying to raise immunization rates have faced the issue in light of a growing anti-vaccine movement.
The debate about whether a vaccine can cause autism is no longer an issue, Janczak said, since a British medical journal last year retracted a flawed study that was used widely to link autism to the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine.
That news hasn't changed opinions in the autism community, said Tami Goldstein of Janesville, who started the Rock County Autism Spectrum Disorder support group.
"Talk to the tens of thousands of parents that are all just saying the same thing—I vaccinated my child and something happened," she said.
The biggest issue, she said, is the amount of mercury in vaccines. Even though there isn't much in one vaccine, it adds up with the multitude of vaccines children are supposed to receive, she said.
Most of the health department's vaccines do not have mercury, Erickson said. The ones that do contain mercury, which is used as a preservative, have less than the amount a person would receive by eating a tuna sandwich, she said.
Mercury should be removed from all vaccines, Goldstein said, and the immunization schedule should be changed so it doesn't start at such a young age—when a child's nervous system still is developing.
Goldstein says she's talked to a lot of young parents who aren't vaccinating their children because of what they've seen and read. Those parents aren't really worried about their children contracting a preventable disease because vaccinated people are still contracting diseases, she said.
She urged parents to get informed and not listen only to their pediatricians.
Erickson said much of the fuel behind vaccine fears comes from misinformation on the Internet.
"It just seems like it's easier to get good information out, but also easier to get misinformation out," she said. "A lot of the anti-vaccine arguments just are not real science-based."
People can be reassured by the minute amount of reactions reported compared to the number of vaccines given annually, she said.
Percent of Rock County children fully immunized
2011: 66 (August-October)
Note: In 2008 and 2009, statistics focused on children who turned 19 months old in that year. Starting in 2010, data focused on kids who turned 2 in that year.
Source: Rock County Health Department