By ISAAC CONSTANS
Capital News Service
LANSING – Michigan, with vaccination rates that put it near the bottom of a list of all states, has launched a new campaign — I Vaccinate — that it hopes will boost rates up to 90 percent.
Currently, 67.6 percent of Michigan children aged 19 to 35 months have received all of their recommended vaccinations, according to a 2016 United Health Foundation report.
The program, which was launched in late March, has an “innovative” multi-platform structure that will educate and encourage Michigan residents, according to state officials.
I Vaccinate combines a social media, web and TV presence to convey the importance of vaccinations for communities by focusing on parents’ concerns. Its website offers vaccination schedules, links to the immunization registry and answers questions that parents and guardians typically have.
“We feel that this type of program is novel in that sense. It’s not just the government doctor in the lab coat coming down, shaking his finger and saying, ‘Why are you not vaccinated?’” said Eden Wells, the chief medical officer of the Department of Health and Human Services. “It’s really talking about why vaccinations are so important.”
Wells said that with the help of the Franny Strong Foundation based in West Bloomfield, the program is primed to reduce disease rates.
In the mid-1990s, a private-public partnership called “Immunize Your Little Michigander” elevated Michigan to seventh in vaccination rates, a standing the state has relinquished but seeks to reclaim.
“Vaccines are safe,” Wells said. “Vaccines are still the best way — not only that when we vaccinate our young children, we’re protecting them — but it’s also part of protecting the community.”
Wells said that vaccinations reduce disease incidence rates and the chance of an epidemic. If more people are immunized for a disease, that disease is less likely to spread.
“If there was a child with an autoimmune disease who couldn’t get vaccinated, the more people around that child that are vaccinated, the less likely he is to get sick,” said Roseann Davis, a public information officer for the Grand Traverse County Health Department. “There are very few vaccines that are absolutely, 100 percent effective, so the more people that get vaccinated, the stronger the shield.”
The goal of the program is to first eclipse 80 percent vaccination rates, and eventually reach 90 percent marks. With just over a third of toddlers fully immunized, Michigan has the sixth-lowest vaccination rate, according to the United Health Foundation report.
“I understand that people have to make their own decisions around healthcare,” Nick Lyon, director of the Department of Health and Human Services, said prior to the announcement of I Vaccinate. “But when we have something that’s very effective in preventing illness and health, that’s something that we need to be working on to provide our community and really demonstrating the value of the vaccinations.”
Resistance to vaccination comes with various justifications, Wells said. While some parents do not have access to vaccines, others actively choose to avoid them.
Under Michigan law, abstention from recommended vaccines is legal, and individuals can obtain medical, philosophical or religious waivers. Organizations such as Michigan for Vaccine Choice encourage parents to inform themselves of their options when it comes to being vaccinated.
Medical reasons not to get vaccinated include allergies to vaccines and compromised immune systems.
“Frankly, the anti-vaccinators, I think, make up just a small component of perhaps all the barriers that parents maybe face when they’re looking to get their children up to date or getting their vaccine schedules complete,” Wells said.
“For instance, what we saw was there is a large amount of children who start their vaccinations but don’t complete them on time or maybe they’re getting them completed in a very delayed fashion, which still makes them at risk for infection.”
In Michigan, 54 percent of toddlers are up to date on their vaccines, according to health officials.
On its website, I Vaccinate offers catch-up schedules. Although vaccines are best when delivered at their prescribed times, Michigan Association of Osteopathic Family Physicians President R. Taylor Scott said it is always a good conversation to have with physicians to explore their vaccination choices.
“We have a wonderful advantage in Michigan that is not available in many states — that is the registry,” Scott said. “We can check the status of a patient or child who’s in the bigger system. Physicians can look at their vaccine history, and that provides much more accessible data to be able to make educated decisions on what vaccines are indicated or not indicated.”
The new campaign also works to dispel vaccine myths, including the disproved connection between autism and vaccines. The website links to scientific journals that point to no link between vaccines and autism.
Davis said that the main issue in Traverse City is education about vaccines. The city recently struggled with a whooping cough outbreak, despite the free vaccinations it provides for children without insurance.
Wells said some racial and socioeconomic layers exist in the breakdown of non-vaccinators, but low rates of protection are distributed among state residents as a whole. Many who actively dispute the effectiveness of vaccination come from upper classes, she said.
Yet, for all of the reasons why parents don’t vaccinate, the main one might be out of their control. Depending on where people live, it can be difficult to reach a vaccination clinic.
“When it gets down to it, I think the largest component is access and time,” Wells said. “What this program does is target those parents who may be on the fence, so what they might do is maybe not pursue it as hard.”
However, the reasoning for vaccination can be simple when it comes to the decision.
For Scott, the contrast of health in vaccinated regions to countries without immunization capabilities speaks loud and clear.
“My favorite saying is, ‘The reason to get vaccinated is because you can,’” Scott said.
The I Vaccinate website can be accessed at www.ivaccinate.org.