Group Health Pediatricians Concerned About Falling Immunization Rates

John Dunn, MD, cares for a young patient

Immunizations are one of the most effective ways to protect the health of children and our communities. In fact, the development and wide use of vaccines is considered a public health milestone of the 20th century. Today, dangerous diseases such as polio, measles, whooping cough, and diphtheria are at all-time lows thanks to the preventive power of immunization.

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Even though immunizations may prevent as many as 33,000 deaths a year, according to one study, immunization rates in Washington continue to lag far behind the state's goal of an 80 percent coverage rate. In fact, approximately one in four children are not fully immunized to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines by age 3.

Group Health doctors are concerned about this immunization gap. As the immunization rate across the state falls, the risk of outbreaks increases. Washington state has already experienced a rise in outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, including measles and whooping cough — diseases that once claimed thousands of lives every year, most of them children.

John Dunn, MD, a pediatrician at Group Health's Northshore Medical Center, leads Group Health's immunization program. He shares his views on what's driving the immunization gap.

Why is it so important for kids to be fully immunized?
The biggest reason is that vaccines can protect us against some really dangerous diseases that have no treatment and no cure. For kids, especially kids aged 2 years and younger, preventing illness whenever we can is even more important because they don't have the same ability to fight diseases that adults do. For a small child, diseases like whooping cough and measles carry big risks.

What's behind Washington state's immunization gap?
We don't know for sure, but it's most likely a combination of factors. There may be access barriers such as cultural or socio-economic issues. Some parents may simply be disorganized and aren't getting their kids in for routine well-child visits. And there's a growing number of parents who are concerned about the safety of vaccines. We're seeing more parents every day who are choosing not to give their kids one or more of the recommended vaccines.

Are vaccines safe?
Vaccines are very safe, and serious reactions are rare. When vaccines are developed, they are subjected to extremely rigorous testing and evaluation. Even after research and development, every vaccine is reviewed by a series of medical and governmental bodies before it is ever recommended for use.

Why the concern about vaccine safety?
My guess is that there is so much misinformation out there that parents don't know which sources to trust. The Internet provides great access to information, but it's hard to know how credible the source is. When I search for "vaccine safety," even I can't tell who is providing some of the information that comes up.

How do we know who to trust?
The best resource is your doctor, either your family doctor or your child's provider. They're trained in how vaccines and the body work together to prevent disease.

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