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Senate HELP Committee Vaccination Hearing

On February 10, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions held a hearing on “The Reemergence of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases: Exploring the Public Health Successes and Challenges.” Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) each spoke to the past successes of vaccinations and emphasized the importance of high vaccination rates.

The first witness was Dr. Anne Schuchat, MD, Rear Admiral and Director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Dr. Schuchat described the current public health infrastructure for vaccine distribution, including the Vaccines for Children (VFC) entitlement, instituted in 1994, and the Vaccine Assistance Act, passed in 1962, both of which are implemented through the CDC. The VFC program provides over 50 percent of all routinely-recommended vaccines for individuals 18 and under, and has shown that each dollar invested in childhood immunization leads to $10 in societal savings and $3 in direct medical savings. Dr. Schuchat also addressed the issue of low vaccination rates among adults for certain vaccine-preventable diseases (VPDs), and how the CDC has been addressing this problem by improving public outreach, and pushing to make certain vaccines available for free at pharmacies.

The second panel of witnesses was comprised of Dr. Mark Sawyer, MD, Professor of Clinical Pediatrics at UC San Diego; Dr. Kelly Moore, MD, Director of the Immunization Program at the Tennessee Department of Health; and Dr. Tim Jacks, DO. Dr. Jacks described how herd immunity protects those who are unable to be vaccinated due to age or health reasons; these individuals depend on the mass immunization of the rest of the population to avoid contracting a VPD. He also emphasized the importance of the measles vaccination, as measles is highly contagious (90 percent of those unvaccinated and exposed to the virus will contract measles).

The witnesses illustrated several common cases of misinformation regarding childhood vaccinations, and commented that such misinformation, often found online, must be corrected with patience, empathy, and scientifically verified information. Dr. Moore asserted that the best way to combat such misinformation is not through hostility to parents, but through patient, measured communication from a family doctor.

Finally, the witnesses recommended tightening provisions in state laws that allow for exemptions to vaccination for religious or philosophical objections. According to Dr. Sawyer, “AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) believes that vaccine exemptions should be available but with rigorous criteria and include the involvement of health professionals.” Last year, California passed a bill that requires those seeking personal exemptions for vaccination to have the signature of a medical professional; following the passage of the bill, the percentage of unvaccinated kindergarteners in California has fallen. State lawmakers are considering another bill to further restrict personal exemptions.