Health Secretary Touts Benefits of Immunizations

By Nina Lehr, Pennsylvania Legislative Services | March 6, 2019


Dr. Rachel Levine, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Health (DOH), held media availability along with local pediatricians to talk about the importance of immunizations in response from the comments made from US Sen. Rand Paul about how immunizations should not be required during a hearing yesterday.


Sec. Levine stated immunizations are one of the victories of public health and pediatrics in the 20th century decreasing many significant childhood illnesses including polio, whooping cough, measles, and mumps. She reiterated, “I want to make it very clear that child immunizations, adult immunizations, such as the measles vaccine, are safe and they are effective in preventing very serious illnesses and have been a public health victory.” She added the idea that these immunizations should not be required does not make sense and studies have proven there is no association between the measles vaccine and autism. She noted the article that indicated a link between autism and the measles vaccine was proved to be false and fabricated and was withdrawn from publication but has had an effect on misinformation to the public about the safety of vaccines.


Sec. Levine remarked DOH is committed to working with stakeholders to improve the Commonwealth’s immunization rates and the current immunization rate for measles in Pennsylvania is greater than 96%, which is higher than the threshold needed for “herd immunity.” She clarified “herd immunity” means enough of a population is immunized that the disease is unlikely to spread and lead to an outbreak. She noted a key initiative from the Wolf Administration last term was to change the provisional period for when immunizations are due in school from 8 months to 5 days in order to get most children vaccinated before the school year starts. She emphasized there are still some communities where more work and outreach needs done to dispel the misinformation being spread from anti-vaccination groups.


Dr. Abby Myers, a general pediatrician at Penn State Health, stated she is a proponent of mandatory vaccination in order to attend day cares and public school and believes “in this day and age it is easy to forget that these illnesses are out there and these diseases can be life-threatening and often at times do still take children’s lives.” She noted it is important to be in a good relationship with your pediatrician in order to talk about the purpose, safety, and efficacy of the vaccines and to receive an educated opinion. She concluded her remarks by emphasizing mandatory vaccines are important to protect all children, including those who are not able to get vaccines due to true medical conditions.


Sec. Levine then took questions from the media.


So vaccines are encouraged but not law?

There is legislation that indicates which vaccines are required for school but there are medical, philosophical and religious exceptions. There are true medical exceptions for immunizations, which the medical community agrees with, which is why it is so important to have that herd immunity for those who cannot actually be vaccinated and the rate of philosophical or religious exceptions is less than 2% statewide.


Sen. Paul said he and his family have all been vaccinated but is concerned about government-mandated vaccinations saying it should be up to the parent, can you comment?

The vaccinations are required for school and it is critical from a public health perspective that the safety and efficacy of the vaccinations are emphasized and parents and communities are educated in order to prevent these life-threatening illnesses.


Do you have a response to the senator saying there is not enough evidence to support the claim that unvaccinated children can spread the disease to immuno-compromised children?

That is incorrect and we know, both clinically and statistically, that children who have specific immune deficiencies are susceptible to illnesses if the population is not properly immunized.


Have you seen any attitudes towards vaccinations on the state level that you have found concerning?

Overall I think the lawmakers here understand the necessity of childhood immunizations and I continue in my meetings with representatives and senators to provide an education about the benefits of immunizations.


Due to the fact that the philosophical and religious exemptions are not used very often do you believe there should be a law change disallowing them?

We would like to continue to have those conversations and are continuing to track the overall statewide rates and it is possible to balance individual freedoms with public health and I don’t believe those two things are mutually exclusive.


Do you support government intervention in requiring immunizations?

We support the regulations that require childhood immunizations and I understand there are exceptions and it is our job to educate parents on the benefits and safety of vaccines.


There were reported 16 cases of mumps at Temple University, are you concerned?

We track communicable diseases very carefully at DOH and with Temple being in Philadelphia they are under the jurisdiction of the Philadelphia Department of Health but we stay in contact with them, and all the local health agencies, regularly. We sometimes see a small concentrated outbreak of mumps and it is not necessarily because the individuals are unimmunized but because even after two rounds of MMR you can still contract mumps. There are discussions at CDC about how to address that problem from a public health perspective.


How do you feel the internet is playing a role in the misinformation to the public?

Social media and the internet can be used as a force for public health good and public health bad. We emphasize to the public to not believe everything you read on the internet and social media and the internet can be used to spread misinformation about many public health topics. We have a fantastic new website at the Department of Health to get facts about public health in general, including vaccinations, and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) also has a website to get factual information.


Other than at Temple, have you been hearing of other outbreaks or cases for mumps or measles?

No, there have been no other recent cases of mumps or measles but there have been recent cases in New York. The biggest outbreak of measles is currently in Washington State because of communities that have low rates of immunizations against measles and then are susceptible to these types of outbreaks and it’s completely preventable.