Federal lawmakers Tuesday offered a bipartisan endorsement for the use of vaccines as a safe and effective means of protection against preventable infectious diseases in an effort to alleviate concerns raised in recent years by anti-vaccine parents, even as a major proponent of parent choice was not heard from.
“Too many parents are turning away from sound science,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pension said during a hearing. “Sound science is this—vaccines save lives.”
Noticeably absent from the proceedings was committee member and potential Republican presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. Paul recently came under criticism for comments he made calling for parents to have the choice on whether to give their children vaccines, a view that differs from most medical experts.
“These vaccines have worked so well that the memory of these diseases has faded and the importance of vaccination has become less obvious,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
Members of the committee held a hearing that examined the reasons behind the rise in cases of vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles over the past few years, and ways public health officials and physicians can take steps to help increase the country’s level of vaccination coverage.
Among the public health officials and doctors who spoke before the panel was Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, who provided an update on the current measles outbreak that has infected 121 people from 17 states between Jan.1 and Feb. 6.
“These episodes require a rapid response coordinated across local, state and federal jurisdictions,” Schuchat said. “The backbone for such a response comes from the public health immunization infrastructure—the systems and people that protect our communities from vaccine-preventable diseases.”
Schuchat described childhood vaccination coverage among the overall population as “strong”, with immunization rates for many diseases above 90% and less than 1% of toddlers receiving no vaccines. Every dollar invested in the childhood immunization program has resulted in $3 in direct medical savings and $10 in societal savings, she said.
The introduction of school immunization requirement by all states over the past three decades has resulted in the prevention of more than 300 million illnesses, 732,000 deaths and $1.4 trillion in cost savings, Schuchat said.
Members of the committee who attended the hearing took turns trying to dispel misperceptions about the safety and efficacy of vaccines, including the notion the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine causes the onset of autism spectrum disorder, a theory that has been discredited since it was first proposed in a 1998 study published in the Lancet.
The bipartisan tone of the hearing began to wane a bit as some Republican lawmakers criticized President Barak Obama’s proposed fiscal 2016 budget that calls for $50 million in cuts to Section 317 of the Public Health Service Act, which authorizes the federal government to purchase vaccines to stockpile, provide education outreach, and to administer vaccinations in times of emergency.
“It’s puzzling to me that the administration would propose to cut this program when we’re in the midst of a measles outbreak,” said Republican Sen. Susan Collins, of Maine.
During a news briefing Feb. 3, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest explained the cut was possible because more people had received health coverage under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which requires insurers to cover the cost of preventive services such as vaccinations.
“The reason is that we can take away funding for that program because of the Affordable Care Act,” Earnest said. “The Affordable Care Act actually guarantees that every citizen in this country has access to free preventative care, including the measles vaccine. So we no longer need to provide additional government funding to ensure that those vaccines can be administered.”
When asked whether the proposed cut would have an impact on the CDC’s immunization program capabilities, Schuchat said she couldn’t say that a reduction would have “no impact”, saying the result would most likely be a reduction in the federal government’s vaccine stockpile purchase. About 3 million doses of MMR vaccine currently are stockpiled, which is enough to cover about half of the country’s pediatric population for one year.
The majority of cases have developed as a result of this current outbreak began last December at Disneyland in California where 39 people who visited the park were reported to have been infected. The number of cases has since increased to 107 within the state as of Feb. 9, according to the California Department of Public Health (PDF).
In Illinois, another outbreak of measles has resulted in 10 confirmed cases as of Tuesday, according to the Cook County Department of Public Health. Most of the cases have been traced to a suburban Chicago day-care center, where eight infants and one adult were infected.
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