America urgently needs a national vaccine initiative

Vaccinations in the United States have saved millions of lives, increased life expectancy and saved trillions of dollars in societal costs. The science is clear –vaccines are safe, effective and the best protection we have against serious preventable diseases like measles.

Vaccine programs are one of public health’s greatest accomplishments, yet we are rapidly losing ground. While most people choose to vaccinate, health officials and health care providers face significant challenges communicating with those who are uncertain about vaccines because of misinformation, distrust and fear. And because of our success with immunizations in the U.S., today’s parents may not understand how devastating these diseases can be and how serious a threat they pose.

We urgently need federal resources and leadership for a national vaccine initiative spearheaded by CDC in partnership with states to counter anti-vaccine messages and halt the backsliding. State, territorial, tribal and local public health agencies are on the front lines doing critical work with severely limited resources. I strongly urge Congress to provide sustained, predictable and increased funding for a strong public health system and a national vaccine initiative.

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We already have blueprints for these kinds of norm-shifting initiatives. The federal government has created successful national initiatives on other public health priorities, like the Truth tobacco prevention campaign, opioid epidemic response and now the Ending the HIV Epidemic initiative the president announced.

I agree with CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield when he says we must “win the hearts and minds of parents so that science is not left on the shelf.” To accomplish this and to turn the tide, we need a coordinated, national, whole community initiative addressing vaccine hesitancy and increasing vaccination rates.

The initiative should support further research to enhance our understanding of vaccine hesitancy and build an evidence base on how to counter hesitancy and increase vaccination rates. And it should engage in an all-out media campaign that highlights the success and importance of vaccines, counters misinformation, and reinforce the public’s confidence in vaccines as a foundational building block.

While a national media campaign is necessary, it alone will not be sufficient. We need to work community by community to address the pockets of low immunization rates, which vary by state. This requires state, local, territorial and tribal health departments to lead community-based strategies, which build upon a national media campaign by working with churches, health care providers, schools, businesses and community elders who have seen firsthand the impacts of the diseases these vaccines prevent.

This requires a culturally competent understanding of community-specific concerns and barriers to getting immunized. We have to overcome at community and individual levels the scope of misinformation, complacency, health care access issues and distrust in government and the pharmaceutical industry.

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While vaccine laws requiring immunization for child care and school entry are important and something I support, we cannot regulate our way into the hearts and minds of those who are uncertain. The concerns parents have regarding vaccination must be addressed with compassion, care and evidence-based practice. Parents need our help to make informed decisions to protect themselves and their loved ones from dangerous, vaccine-preventable diseases.

It’s past time that the federal government fund and lead an all-out national effort to counter the anti-vaccine movement and build vaccine confidence.

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