Lifespan in the Commonwealth has increased dramatically over the last century. Today, it is 76.6 years for men, and 81.3 years for women. Virginia ranks 24th of all the states and the District of Columbia, and first among our immediate neighbors. Much of that can be attributed to well run government with sound public health measures resulting in clean water and food, proper sanitation and workplace safety. Yet, nothing has had a greater impact than the reduction of vaccine-preventable infections, especially when it comes to our children. Unfortunately, there is a growing and disturbing trend across the country of parental rejection of life-saving vaccines for unscientific reasons.
I think that most of us are aware that childhood infections were the leading cause of death and disability from the Colonial era well into the 20th century. In the United States, childhood deaths caused by infectious diseases decreased from 30.4 percent to 1.4 percent between 1900 and 1997. Therapeutic advances such as antibiotics saved many lives, but preventive measures had a much greater impact.
America’s immunization history began with the English physician, Edward Jenner, who demonstrated in 1796 that smallpox could be prevented by inoculating healthy persons with cowpox. He is the one who coined the terms “vaccine” and “vaccination.” It is said that his work saved more lives than any other human. Our very own George Washington strongly believed in the efficacy of inoculation. I spoke about this on the floor of the General Assembly this session, that General Washington, himself a smallpox survivor, mandated a mass immunization of the Continental army, to not just increase its effectiveness fighting the British, but to have an army able to fight at all. Among the Continental army, 90 percent of deaths were caused by disease and smallpox was the most deadly. After the immunizations not one regiment was incapacitated by the disease.
President Madison signed the Vaccine Act of 1813 – the first of many federal government actions in support of a comprehensive immunization program. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, crippled by polio, established the March of Dimes; their research led to the eradication of that disease and transformed child health in mid-century America. Many Presidents since have endorsed legislation supporting vaccine research and deployment, epidemiologic surveillance and intervention and evidence-based mitigation of vaccine-related problems and liability.
Make no mistake though, vaccine preventable diseases are still a menace. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has already reported seven outbreaks of measles for 2019 – three in New York and one each in Washington, Texas, Illinois and California. And more than 100 cases of measles were diagnosed in 2018 throughout 21 states and DC. The cause is exposure of a person without immunity to another infected with measles. UNICEF projects outbreaks of diphtheria, mumps and pertussis. Basic biology requires that, to be safe, we must keep immunization rates up – something we are failing to do. The World Health Organization identifies “vaccine hesitancy” as one of the top 10 global health challenges of 2019. The number of non-medical exemptions granted for mandatory immunization requirements is rising; and in Virginia, the rate of these exemptions has more than doubled. We don’t want to be the next state to report an outbreak. Virginians have been lucky so far. We may not be lucky forever.