A government program that was was created to expand vaccine access for low-income children will help prevent more than 700,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s estimates of how many illnesses there would have been without the immunizations. But, as the nation marks the 20th anniversary of that Vaccines for Children program, the disease it was originally intended to combat is making a comeback.
The Vaccines for Children program allows the CDC to purchase vaccines at a discount and distribute them at no charge to thousands of low-income families that wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford them. It was created in 1994 as a direct response to a measles outbreak here in the U.S. that killed over a hundred people.
“I joined CDC in 1990 in the midst of a resurgence of measles — a measles outbreak that caused over 100 deaths, more than 50,000 cases, and that affected children throughout the country and really was a wake-up call,” the director of the CDC, Dr. Thomas Friedan, said on a call with reporters to mark the anniversary. “It also impressed upon me just how infectious measles is, because a single undiagnosed case in a hospital could result in dozens of secondary cases among health care workers or other patients who had come in for care at the same time.”
The VFC program, which about half of the American kids under the age of 19 qualify for, was supposed to help address that issue. Now, it distributes about 90 million doses of vaccinations to 45,000 health providers around the country each year. Federal officials say the program helped increase the national immunization rate to above 90 percent for once-common diseases like measles, mumps, rubella, polio, hepatitis B, and chicken pox. By the CDC’s estimates, the children who have been born over the past two decades of the program’s operation have been protected from about 21 million hospitalizations and 732,000 deaths.
“While the VFC program was implemented to help people who had a financial need, in fact, it’s benefited everyone; because when vaccination rates go up, we are all safer,” Friedan explained. “But we can’t let our successes result in complacency.”
In fact, just as CDC hits a milestone for the VFC program, vaccine-preventable diseases are starting to spread again. During the first four months of this year, more measles cases have been recorded than during any similar period since 1996. Many of those cases originated in countries like the Philippines and were able to spread rapidly among pockets of unvaccinated people here in the U.S.
But at this point, cost barriers to vaccines aren’t the issue. Most of the recent measles cases have been identified among people who intentionally skipped out on the vaccination intended to protect against measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) due to “philosophical objections.” Even though the MMR shot is recommended for all young children, it’s the same vaccine that a widely discredited 1998 study claimed could be linked to autism — and that persistent conspiracy theory has dissuaded an increasing number of parents from following the CDC’s recommended vaccination schedule.