Monday, August 24, 2015

Keeping a streak alive

Over the course of this miserable season there have been a few days where it seemed that the Red Sox might be able to put a run together after several well-played and well-pitched games. These elusive games are called “wins” and three (or more) in a row constitute a streak. Sadly, we’ve had too few streaks and too little success to make this season anything but a losing one.

Many Rhode Islanders have heard about a win streak of a different kind in the news recently. Rhode Island has some the highest vaccination rates of any state in the country — and that’s very good news. More than 82% of Rhode Island toddlers have received the measles, mumps and rubella series, the highest in the U.S. Rates for children in the same age group for varicella (chickenpox) and hepatitis B were both greater than 96%, also the country’s highest. For children entering school, rates for the vaccines against chicken pox, hepatitis B, tetanus, pertussis, diphtheria, measles, mumps and rubella were above 92%, well above the national averages. This is something to celebrate and a streak to sustain. Vaccines are the single most significant achievement in public health and are the sole reason why many of us have never seen so many of the dreadful diseases listed above.

The Rhode Island Department of Health recently recommended adding a requirement for HPV (human papillomavirus) to the vaccine schedule for children entering middle school. HPV is so common that almost every sexually active person will contract it at some time. Certain strains of HPV cause cancer, making this the first vaccine against cancer. Some Rhode Islanders are pushing back on the requirement but I am hopeful that science will prevail over anti-government paranoia and we can keep our streak alive. There will always be a small portion of the population that remains unvaccinated for religious reasons and those who can’t be immunized because of another medical condition, but for the rest of us, there’s no reason to skip this vaccine.

For full disclosure, I worked with the manufacturers of the HPV vaccine a decade ago as they were bringing the vaccine to market. I was proud to work on a cancer vaccine and was glad it would be available to my children (then just 1 and 3), so if I sound like I am a vaccine homer, I am. In the course of my work I spoke with parents whose children contracted a vaccine-preventable disease and their agony is far worse than the pain of a shot in the arm.

Some people have asked why is the vaccine requirement itself so important and why is it appropriate for children entering middle school. The requirement is critical to establish “herd immunity”, to prevent an outbreak and protect those who are unable to be vaccinated. While most middle school children are not sexually active, as children get into high school and beyond (when they are sexually active), regular doctor visits are fewer and further between, making middle school entry one of the last opportunities for a captive audience. If you don’t want to talk to your kids about sex when they get this vaccine, then don’t. Just let them know that you are protecting them and their friends against cancer later in life — and keeping a good win streak alive. 

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