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 # 430  

September 2002




Low Vaccination Rates for Deadly Diseases Put Black School Children at Serious Risk


by Beverly M. Gaines, M.D.

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 country.

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 immunizations.

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 for Hispanics.

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.

Vaccine-preventable diseases 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.

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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 1-800-232-2522.


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