Vaccine Education Center Director Dr. Paul Offit is often quoted saying, “Vaccines are victims of their own success.” When he says this, he is making the point that because vaccines work, people do not remember the diseases they prevent and become more frightened by the vaccines than the diseases. And certainly, human nature is such that we notice things that are in front of us, like a set of vaccinations or a disease outbreak, but we don’t always notice things that have gone away. So, as 2016 comes to an end, let’s pause to recognize three things that went away during 2016:
Measles in the Americas
In September, the World Health Organization (WHO) and Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) declared that measles virus was officially eliminated from North, Central and South America. Individual countries had declared themselves measles-free in the past. However, this marked the first time that measles, one of the most highly contagious diseases, was eliminated from an entire geographic region of the world. It is important to remember that while this means measles is no longer transmitted from a reservoir of disease in the country, it does not mean that measles is no longer present. Indeed, the virus is still imported as people travel to and from other parts of the world. For this reason, maintaining high vaccination rates continues to be important.
HPV infections in some US teens
In February, a study found the rate of HPV infection in teenage girls (14 to 19 years old) dropped by two-thirds in the 10 years since introduction of the HPV vaccine. Rates of infection also dropped among women 20 to 24 years old since the vaccine was introduced. Given that immunization rates have been improving, but do not yet approach those of other vaccines, the results suggest even greater potential to decrease HPV-related cancers and deaths during years to come.
Vaccine exemptions in California
In January 2015, a person with measles visited Disneyland in California leading to a multi-state and multi-country measles outbreak. Realizing that high rates of unvaccinated children in their state made their population particularly susceptible, legislators responded by passing bill SB277. The new bill removed all vaccine exemptions except medically necessary ones. Although passage of the bill was controversial, it looks like it is working to make Californians, and those around them, better protected from vaccine-preventable diseases. Indeed, despite the fact that the bill did not take full effect until July 2016, by January 2016, the California Department of Public Health found higher vaccination rates in 49 of 58 counties in the state. Vaccination rates are expected to continue to rise as parents comply by either having their children vaccinated or seeking to home school them. Since unvaccinated children are still at risk when they move about the community, it is hoped that most parents proceed with vaccination.
It is exciting to revisit some vaccine successes during 2016 that might have been overlooked during the course of day-to-day life. Let’s hope for even more progress in 2017.