It wasn’t that long ago that people feared crippling diseases like polio, measles or rubella and faced iron lungs, leg braces, lifelong disabilities or even death because of outbreaks. These images are no longer fresh in people’s minds because vaccinations, one of medicine’s greatest achievements, helped to all but eradicate these diseases — until recently.
Measles, declared eliminated in the U.S. in 2000, is now on the rise. There were 86 reported cases of measles in the U.S. in 2016. That number jumped 14-fold to 1,241 so far this year.
Measles is a serious respiratory disease that is very contagious. It can cause brain damage, deafness and in rare cases, death.
The good news is the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine is the best way to protect against this disease. It comes in two doses, one – at 12-15 months old and another at 4-6 years old – and has been administered to millions world-wide. The vaccine is safe and effective and helps to create herd immunity for those with compromised immune systems or diseases that prevent them from getting vaccinated.
Herd Immunity is the resistance to the spread of a contagious disease within a population when a sufficiently high proportion of individuals are immune because of vaccination. Unfortunately, in some parts of the U.S., including neighboring New York state, non-medical exemptions have been used to skip vaccines for measles. The largest measles outbreak in the country led to swift action in New York this year: lawmakers revoked the non-medical exemption for mandatory school vaccinations. Children who are not properly vaccinated cannot attend public school. Period.
Before chickenpox vaccines, Baby Boomers grew up exposed to diseases like chickenpox. Even though it seemed like “no big deal” for parents to host parties and expose their children, we now know that in those who contract chickenpox, the virus lies dormant until later in life when people can develop shingles – a very painful manifestation of the disease. Research and advancements led to a vaccine, protecting children from the itchy pocks and more importantly creating another obstacle to developing the painful shingles later on in life.
Kids going off to college must be vaccinated against Meningitis in Connecticut and in many other states, too. College students are at higher risk for the disease that is deadly and quickly progresses if left untreated. The vaccine became available at the end of 2014 and has contributed to a decline in cases.
These are good developments and important for our children. In Connecticut, non-medical exemptions are on the rise. In fact, 102 schools in the state fall below the CDC-recommended vaccination rate of 95%. (You can check to see if your school is one of the outliers at www.bit.ly/CT-DPH-Survey.)
The health of our children, our schools and our communities is critically important. Maintaining good vaccination standards keeps us all healthy and helps to protect those with compromised immune systems from being exposed and put at risk. Our children, and our children’s children, have the opportunity to grow up in a world free from polio, measles and other preventable diseases because of the vaccines we have today. We must work together to make this a reality.
To that end, we stand with Gov. Ned Lamont and Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell and commend them for taking a stand to ensure the health and well-being of the residents of Connecticut.
In the next legislative session, Connecticut’s General Assembly should follow New York’s lead and act swiftly to eliminate non-medical exemptions to vaccination requirements.
Erin Jones is Regional Director of Advocacy and Government Affairs for the March of Dimes. Francesca Testa is a T.E.A.M Member of the National Meningitis Association.