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Marketplace

Immunization cuts proposed amid measles outbreak

Nancy Marshall-Genzer Feb 6, 2015
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Montgomery County, Maryland, is right next to Washington, D.C., so when Washington reported a measles case earlier this week, the county’s Department of Health and Human Services shifted into high gear.

Part of that response involves vaccinating people who had contact with those who got sick.  The county gets much of its vaccine through the federal 317 Immunization Program,  which the Obama administration wants to cut by $50 million, affecting the supply of all kinds of vaccines. 

“To cut money for something that is a proven public health success, doesn’t make sense,” says Cindy Edwards, who is in charge of the county’s communicable disease division, which responds to outbreaks of such diseases as measles and whooping cough.

The 317 program provides vaccine for the uninsured. The White House says there’s  less demand for those vaccines because more children are insured as a result of the Affordable Care Act. Insurers have to pay for vaccines. Plus, the Obama administration added about $128 million  to a separate vaccination program for children. 

But Edwards says a lot of her vaccine goes to adults, many of them immigrants  documented and undocumented.

“We’ve had several measles outbreaks,” she says. “One was with a refugee population. So we were standing up clinics on Saturdays and Sundays.”

While the White House would only cut 317 funding for vaccines, the  program funds other things, too. Edwards was able to use it to pay nurses overtime for those weekend clinics and to track those who were in contact with people who got sick. Some health advocates says more money is needed for things like that. 

“The program has never been fully funded … and now they’re cutting it by $50 million more,”  says Laura Hanen, a lobbyist for the National Association of County and City Health Officials.

The 317 program money can also be used to train doctors how to persuade reluctant parents to vaccinate their children, Hanen says. That’s especially important in western states with many unvaccinated or under-vaccinated children.  L.J. Tan, chief strategy officer of the Immunization Action Coalition, says at least 14 percent of toddlers in Colorado are not fully vaccinated for measles.

“So it’s these pockets of under-vaccinated kids that we’re worried about,” he says. “A single case of measles in that community will explode into an outbreak.”

And Tan says, clinics will need all the 317 Immunization Program vaccine they can get. 

Members of Congress aren’t immune to these arguments.  President Obama proposed cuts to the 317 program last year, but Congress restored the money. 

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