Op-EdOpinion

HAY: CDC Should Avoid Preventable Vaccine ‘Deja Pneu’

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released an unscheduled measles report of 971 cases “because it had reached this new milestone.” That number has recently risen to 981 with no signs of stopping soon.

Measles is a vaccine-preventable disease that until recently was deemed eliminated. Then came the current outbreak, which has hit the northeast U.S. particularly hard and includes multiple cases reported right over the border in Maryland. This shows the impact of lax vaccine requirements on diseases once thought to be eliminated.

But now, instead of heeding the science behind vaccines, the CDC is on the brink of moving in the opposite direction. They are considering removing vaccine requirements for another contagious disease, pneumococcal, in a vulnerable population, Americans 65 and older. Such a move would misrepresent not just the importance of the relationship between doctors and their patients when it comes to vaccines, particularly within minority communities, but also the seriousness of pneumococcal disease, for which the pneumococcal vaccine is the most effective defense.

Pneumococcal disease can cause pneumonia, blood infections, and even bacterial meningitis. It can lead to hearing loss, blindness, seizures and death. Nearly one million people contract pneumococcal disease annually, leading to about 50,000 deaths in the United States every year, according to the CDC. The overwhelming majority of these deaths are adults. And the African American vaccination rate, currently at only 50 percent, continues to trail substantially behind the vaccination rate for white Americans (68 percent) and the national target vaccination rate (80 percent), according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

This disease may not get the same attention as measles, but make no mistake: it is harmful, especially in a population with weakened immune systems and multiple chronic conditions, both of which raise the likelihood of contracting this potentially deadly disease. For a number of complex, interconnected reasons, minorities are at an elevated risk to chronic conditions, putting them at increased risk of contracting pneumococcal disease. And like measles, the most effective defense against pneumococcal disease is to get a vaccine.

While misinformation and fearmongering often drive vaccine refusals for measles, pneumococcal and other diseases, many seniors are unaware they need the vaccines in the first place, which makes a doctor’s guidance critical. Already, 80 percent of adults who are at an increased risk for pneumococcal disease due to chronic conditions, and 40 percent of adults over 65 remain unvaccinated, according to the CDC.

The District’s seniors have enough to worry about when it comes to health care, particularly when it comes to deciphering the vaccines and other medications that they may need. Seniors may consult their doctors to determine whether, based on their personal medical history, they should be vaccinated and which vaccine they should receive. But that decision should be based on strong, definitive vaccination requirements from the CDC, which serve as important guideposts for both doctors and patients.

We have seen the impact of lax vaccinations in the current measles outbreak. Why repeat that mistake with our seniors? The CDC should make this preventive health care decision clear by maintaining its current vaccination requirements for pneumococcal disease.

Hay is the executive vice president of the Medical Society of the District of Columbia.

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