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Vaccine Safety: Virginia’s Low Vaccination Rates Could Be a Problem

By Noell Saunders

In Virginia, immunization rates among children aged 19 to 35 months decreased from 74 percent in 2015 to 64 percent last year. Virginia also ranks last in children vaccinations out of 50 states, according to the 2016 America's Health Ranking report.

Conversely, national averages are trending upward. In the past three years immunization rates for the same age group have increased about 4 percent to 72.2 percent. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has set a target of 80 percent coverage by 2020.

Contributing to the statistic in Virginia and several other states are exemptions from required immunizations for religious and/or medical reasons. Also, years-long debates between the scientific community, absolutists and anti-vaccine activists have clouded the issue regarding whether vaccines are safe.

Dr. Muge Akpinar-Elci, director of Old Dominion University's Center for Global Health, said there is no doubt vaccines work. She said parents could be putting their children and an entire population in danger if they don't get them vaccinated or delay the process.

"Infectious diseases are preventable with vaccines but if we don't use vaccines they will become an outbreak," she said.

Vaccine skepticism became more commonplace after a 1998 study by British medical researcher Andrew Wakefield that was published in the health journal The Lancet. Wakefield claimed to show a link between children who were given the mumps, measles and rubella vaccine with autism and bowel disease. After scientists could not find corroborating evidence, Wakefield lost his medical license and his research was taken out of the journal. Since, then no researcher has been able to confirm his claim.

Dr. Akpinar-Elci said it's likely that vaccine rates will continue to plummet as more people lean towards the anti-vaccination movement and policy gaps grow larger.

"Low immunization rates can cause devastating public health problems," she said. "Therefore, vaccinations can protect others we care about. This should be our commitment to our communities."

Numerous studies have proven that vaccines are safe and prevent millions of deaths worldwide. In many parts of the world, some of the worst diseases have been eradicated completely.

"For example, look at the devastation from smallpox. We had millions of deaths until a vaccination program started and then the disease was eventually eradicated. The evidence is there," Dr. Akpinar -Elci said.

Some other infectious diseases that have been reduced or eliminated with vaccines include polio, rubella, mumps, measles and chickenpox (varicella).

Dr. Akpinar-Elci said while some will choose to still believe the skepticism, it's important that public health practitioners raise awareness by providing more education and promotional activities.

Centers For Disease Control and Prevention recommends routine vaccination to prevent 16 vaccine-preventable diseases. The CDC's birth to18 years vaccine schedule includes a guide for parents and doctors to follow.

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