In the national effort to eliminate
infectious diseases, African-American children are being left
behind. The statistics are grim: vaccination rates in the African-American
community are among the lowest for any demographic group in the
Simply put, African-American
kids are at serious risk for contracting deadly diseases that
can easily be prevented. It's urgent that parents and the public
and private health communities join together to raise the rates
as the school year begins.
As a pediatrician who treats
children every day and an advocate for appropriate health care
in the African-American community, I know first-hand how valuable
vaccinations can be and how important it is that we continue to
ensure that every child has access to and receives their appropriate
While many devastating diseases
of the past appear to be behind us, they are only lurking silently
in the shadows waiting for the opportunity to re-emerge if we
let our guard down. Consider these the facts:
African-Americans - especially
those living in urban areas - have the lowest immunization rates
in the nation, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's
(CDC) National Immunization Survey.
While the 2001 national average
immunization coverage for children remains among the highest ever
reported at 77 percent, the average immunization coverage rate
for African-American children is a full five percent less than
the national average at 72 percent.
Unfortunately, these statistics
may be overly optimistic since many experts believe the rates
in the African-American community may actually be far lower. That
compares to a 79 percent rate for whites and a 75 percent rate
While these are dangerously
low numbers for our community, they are even more alarming since
the CDC survey showed the gap between African-American children
and white and Hispanic kids is still widening.
That is tragic because childhood
immunizations - while preventing childhood diseases - also set
the stage for a lifetime of good health.
The reduction of infectious
dread diseases over the last four decades is nothing short of
miraculous. Such death-dealing diseases such as polio, small pox
and diphtheria literally have been wiped out in the United States.
Measles, mumps, whooping cough and Haemophilus influenza Type
B, known as Hib disease are on the verge of being eradicated for
people who are immunized on schedule.
Despite the progress, we must
be ever vigilant. The viruses and bacteria that cause vaccine-preventable
disease and death still exist in many parts of the world, and
literally are only a plane trip away from returning to our shores.
Thankfully, vaccines undergo
extensive scientific testing to ensure effectiveness and safety
before the Food and Drug Administration gives its final stamp
of approval. Serious reactions can occur, but they are so extremely
rare that they pale before the life-threatening health complications
caused by contracting a serious infectious disease. Yet disturbingly,
stories about negative effects from vaccines continue to make
the rounds even though all of the existing scientific and medical
data exonerate vaccines as the culprit.
Parents should disregard such
misinformation and make sure their children are immunized on schedule.
Newborns have immunity to many
diseases because of antibodies from the mother, but that infant
immunity soon weakens. By immunizing on time, you can protect
your child from being infected and prevent the infection of others
at daycare or pre-school centers. Children under five years of
age are especially susceptible to disease because their immune
systems are still developing.
also have severe consequences that can impact the whole family:
sick children require doctor's visits, hospitalizations and can
cause parents to miss work and necessary paychecks. Finally, parents
should make sure that they themselves are immunized. Although
it is most important to immunize infants, adults too must be immunized
and it is never too late to vaccinate.
When you consider the amounts
parents will spend on back-to-school clothes and supplies this
year, the few dollars spent on immunization truly is a sound investment
for the entire family.
Beverly M. Gaines, M.D. is vice
president of The National Medical Association (www.nmanet.org),
which promotes the interests of physicians and patients of African
descent, and immediate past chair of its pediatrics section. She
may be contacted at NMA, 1012 Tenth Street NW, Washington, D.C.
20001. For additional information on immunization, contact your
pediatrician or call the CDC National Immunization Hotline at