March 07, 2019
The U.S. measles outbreak, which stretches across the United States to Texas, has been a sobering reminder of the importance of vaccines. As a medical school, we are in the unique position of both caring for patients infected with highly contagious and risky pathogens and also educating about the importance of vaccines and the risk to individuals and populations of vaccine-preventable infections.
Dr. Susan Wootton, associate professor of pediatrics, is a pediatric infectious disease specialist who has special postdoctoral training in vaccinology. She serves on committees at the state level regarding vaccines and has been a leader in our community and around the state to increase vaccinations and reduce infectious diseases. I asked Dr. Wootton to give us some thoughts on our role as a medical school community in the current vaccine landscape.
Dr. Wootton, what is the role of McGovern Medical School as educators, researchers, and clinicians when it comes to vaccines in light of the recent measles outbreak?
As a medical school, our role is multi-level, supporting pro-vaccine policies at the state, educating the community about the importance of vaccines, and at patient level, we are charged with providing high-quality care of patients admitted with vaccine-preventable infections. As a specialist in pediatric infectious diseases, most of the patients I encounter are children admitted in the hospital. Last month was the first time in my career that measles was a serious consideration in the differential of children being admitted with fever and rash. That speaks to both the effectiveness of the vaccine over the past four decades as well as the growing anti-vaccine movement in our region. A decade before the measles vaccine was licensed in the United States (1963), there were 553,000 cases and 553 deaths reported due to measles.
Should we be concerned about measles?
Measles is a highly contagious respiratory pathogen – it is spread by contact and is an airborne virus, remaining in the air for up to 2 hours after a contagious person has left a room. As of Feb. 28, there have been 206 cases confirmed in 11 states. Texas had eight of those cases, and Harris County had four of those. Globally, measles has seen a 30 percent increase, and vaccine hesitancy is listed by the World Health Organization as a top 10 global health threat.
Does the vaccine work?
The measles vaccine is 97 percent effective. MMR vaccine was first made available in 1971. Children get two doses – the first at 12-15 months old and the second dose at 4-6 years of age. Texas allows exemption from childhood vaccination for medical and nonmedical reasons. Not vaccinating makes our population vulnerable to infectious diseases. We must have 95 percent of our population vaccinated to have protection of a population – called herd immunity.
What are ways that our community can improve vaccination rates?
Partnerships that cross medical, public health, academic, and community organizations are critical in promoting reliable information about vaccines among our communities. Just this week, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee announced efforts to introduce legislation to combat online misinformation about vaccines. Supported by representatives from our extended Houston family, including UTHealth, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston Health Department, Harris County Public Health, The Immunization Partnership, and Children at Risk, Congresswoman Lee’s legislation will help families find reliable information online, an important first step.
Thank you, Dr. Wootton for your expertise and your advocacy.
Our colleagues at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia support a Vaccine Education Center. Their website provides up-to-date evidence on the safety of vaccines as well as the unfortunate history of the anti-vaccine movement. Dr. Paul Offit, from CHOP, will be a visiting lecturer at UTHealth next fall. Also, we’ve attached a link to a timely editorial on vaccine safety written by my former colleague Dr. Saad Omer. And here is an article from today’s NYTimes, This Is the Truth About Vaccines. It’s hard to believe that with all the available evidence, we still need to publish papers on vaccine safety. As a community, we need to do as much as we can to protect the most vulnerable in our society—our children—and that includes ensuring appropriate vaccinations