The recent measles outbreaks in communities around the country serve as a stark reminder that when large groups of people are unvaccinated, it leaves them unprotected and vulnerable to disease outbreaks.
The Vaccines for Children Program (VFC) was born in part as a result of a measles outbreak in the United States between 1989-1991, which resulted in tens of thousands of cases of measles and more than 100 deaths. Upon examination, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) determined that more than half of the children who had measles had not received a measles vaccine, even though they were under the care of a healthcare provider.
Public health agencies and Congress realized that a program was needed to help uninsured or underinsured children receive their vaccines, and on August 10, 1993 Congress passed the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (OBRA), which created the VFC program. Since becoming operational in October 1994, the VFC program has contributed directly to a substantial increase in childhood immunization coverage levels and has made a significant contribution to the elimination of disparities in vaccination coverage among eligible children, age 18 and younger.
This week, as the CDC marks National Infant Immunization Week (NIIW), as well as the 20th anniversary of the VFC, we salute the CDC for helping ensure all children have a better chance of obtaining their vaccines. We are proud of the fact that we were an early advocate of the program, recognizing the innovation in this program to help reduce healthcare disparities and the level of potential stigma that parents may feel with being at a socioeconomic disadvantage. By providing vaccines free of charge to the doctors that care for these under-served patients, the VFC has enabled many more parents to obtain vaccines right in the privacy of their doctor’s office rather than going to secondary sites to obtain the vaccines.
Because of the success of the US immunization program in preventing disease, parents may not have heard of some of today’s vaccines or the serious diseases they prevent. These diseases can be especially serious for infants and young children. As a pediatrician, I saw children with many diseases that are now vaccine-preventable: pertussis (whooping cough), measles, mumps, rubella, varicella (chickenpox), Haemophilus influenzae type B, Streptococcus pneumoniae, rotavirus, hepatitis A and hepatitis B, and Neisseria meningitidis.
Vaccine-preventable diseases can still circulate in the US and around the world, as we see today in many measles and even whooping cough outbreaks. That is why it is important to protect infants and children by providing immunity early in life, before they are exposed to potentially life-threatening diseases. Vaccines are a core component of our nation’s preventive services programs.
The hospital where I was working in the winter of 1990/1991 cared for many children with measles. Many of these children were very ill and sadly two of the children died from measles complications. Neither of these two children had received a measles vaccine. As a GSK employee, I am very proud to be part of an organization that is a trusted partner with the public health community. Today, the VFC remains one of the best examples of healthcare intervention and we honor them, as well as its partners including vaccines-related advocacy organizations in promoting the health of our children and communities.
I encourage you to visit the CDC’s recently issued MMWR report for the “Benefits from Immunization During the Vaccines for Children Program Era – United States 1994-2013,” which details the contributions of the VFC, as well as share the NIIW social media badge in support of this important milestone.