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Lamar A.
Republican TN

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  • Reemergence of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases: Exploring the Public Health Successes and Challenges

    by Senator Lamar Alexander

    Posted on 2015-02-12

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    ALEXANDER. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that a copy of my remarks at the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing earlier this week be printed in the Record.

    There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the Record, as follows: Reemergence of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases: Exploring the Public Health Successes and Challenges From smallpox to polio, we have learned in the United States that vaccines save lives. And yet a troubling number of parents are not vaccinating their children.

    Last September this committee held a hearing about the Ebola virus. Our witnesses included a brave physician, Dr. Kent Brantly, who worked in Liberia; and a brave father in Sierra Leone who came to warn us about how rapidly the virus was spreading. The number of people being infected with Ebola was doubling every three weeks, and many of those infected were dying--because for Ebola there was and is no cure, and there was and is no vaccine.

    This produced a near panic in the U.S.--it changed procedures in nearly every hospital and clinic. In response, Congress appropriated more than $5 billion to fight the spread of the virus. The impact of efforts to fight Ebola is that the number of Ebola cases is declining.

    At the same time, here in the U.S. we are now experiencing a large outbreak of a disease for which we do have a vaccine. Measles used to sicken up to 4 million Americans each year- and many believed that it was an unpreventable childhood illness--but the introduction of a vaccine in 1963 changed everything. Measles was declared eliminated--meaning absence of continuous disease transmission for greater than 12 months--from the United States in 2000. From 2001 to 2012, the median yearly number of measles cases reported in all of the U.S. was 60.

    Today is February 10, 2015. It is the 41st day of the year and we already have seen more cases of measles than we would in a typical year. One measles outbreak--in Palatine, Illinois, a suburb about a half hour from Chicago--has affected at least five babies, all less than a year old.

    Infants and individuals who are immunocompromised are traditionally protected by what is called herd immunity--the people around them are vaccinated, so they don't get sick, and that keeps the babies and others who can't get vaccinated from getting sick. That herd immunity is incredibly important. Measles can cause life-threatening complications in children, such as pneumonia or swelling of the brain.

    Our witnesses today will talk more not just about what is causing this outbreak, but why some parents are choosing not to vaccinate their children. Measles is only one example. This hearing which was planned before the measles outbreak reminded us of the importance of vaccines. An analysis of immunization rates across 13 states performed by USA Today found the following: ``Hundreds of thousands of students attend schools--ranging from small, private academies in New York City to large public elementary schools outside Boston to Native American reservation schools in Idaho--where vaccination rates have dropped precipitously low, sometimes under 50%.'' California is one of the 20 states that allow parents to claim personal belief exemptions from vaccination requirements. In some areas of Los Angeles, 60 to 70 percent of parents at certain schools have filed a personal belief exemption. In those elementary schools, vaccination rates are as low as those in Chad or South Sudan.

    The purpose of this hearing is to examine what is standing between healthy children and deadly diseases. It ought to be vaccinations. But too many parents are turning away from sound science.

    Sound science is this: Vaccines save lives. They save the lives of the people who are vaccinated. They protect the lives of the vulnerable around them--like infants and those who are ill.

    Vaccines save lives. They protect us from the ravages of awful diseases like polio, which invades the nervous system and can cause paralysis. I can remember as a child how parents were frightened by the prospect of polio for their child. I had classmates who lived in iron lungs. Our Majority Leader, Senator McConnell, contracted polio as a child. Or whooping cough, which causes thick mucus to accumulate in the airways and can make it difficult for infants to breathe. Or, diphtheria, a bacterial infection that affects the mucous membranes of your nose and throat and can, in advanced stages, damage your heart, kidneys and nervous system.

    We have learned that vaccines save lives. They take deadly, awful, ravaging diseases [[Page S980]] from horror to history. So it is troubling to hear that before we've even reached Valentine's Day this year, 121 Americans are sick with measles, a disease eliminated in the U.S. 15 years ago. It is troubling that a growing number of parents are not following the recommendations doctors and public health professionals have been making for decades. At a time when we are standing on the cusp of medical breakthroughs never imagined--cutting-edge personalized medicine tailored to an individual's genome--we find ourselves retreading old ground.


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