For more than four decades, I have joined with many others working to ensure the timely vaccination of children, and today I am saddened to see an outbreak of measles infecting more than 100 people in 14 states, many of them vulnerable infants.
Our country has achieved the highest immunization rates in history and thankfully the vast majority of parents are choosing to vaccinate their children on time. Yet, some parents today are being swayed by misinformation that has caused them to delay or decline vaccinating their children, jeopardizing the health of many others. I want all people to know that immunizations are safe, and that they work.
The current vaccine debate is being played out in the media as a partisan one, but historically, support for vaccines has been very nonpartisan. Major White House initiatives date as far back as Thomas Jefferson, who supported mass vaccination against smallpox. John F. Kennedy signed into law the first federal support program for vaccines as part of the Vaccine Assistance Act of 1962. President George H.W. Bush's administration set a goal of 90 percent immunization rates and led efforts to create model state plans which have become an integral part of the infrastructure serving every community. The Clinton administration's Vaccines for Children program removed cost as a barrier to eligible families.
When my husband became president in 1977, I was dismayed to learn that fewer than 20 states required vaccinations for school entry. Betty Bumpers, wife of Arkansas Governor Dale Bumpers, and I had been working for many years to increase immunization rates in our home states. We renewed our efforts in Washington by working closely with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to stop the transmission of measles, and we encouraged the passage of laws mandating vaccines for school entry. We were able to accomplish this the first year we were in Washington and now laws exist in every state. We then helped develop an improved immunization program, which included large increases in research for vaccines. Dr. Bill Foege, the head of CDC remained in that position after we came home, and continued to track the outcome of our efforts. By July 1982, only one state reported cases of measles. We celebrated the news that during one week there were no new cases of measles in the United States.
Sadly, in 1989, a measles epidemic swept the country, claiming the lives of nearly 150 people, including many young children, leading us to found our organization, Every Child By Two, whose mission it is to educate the public about the dangers of preventable diseases and the need to complete the primary vaccinations by age two.
Over the first decade, we visited every state to galvanize elected officials and public health advocates and to establish immunization coalitions that today continue to work tirelessly in their communities to keep children healthy. Most importantly, we have enjoyed bi-partisan support for our efforts at both the state and federal levels, resulting in sound public health policies that have been instrumental in reaching record high immunization levels throughout the nation.
The current measles outbreak, however, is a poignant reminder of the vulnerability of those who are not protected through immunization. And, as the debate turns toward the issue of personal rights versus public health, it is important to remember that the ultimate goal is keeping children healthy.
When our children enter a licensed daycare site or school, do they not have the right to be protected from acquiring a deadly communicable disease? I say they do. State laws requiring vaccination for school admittance are based on sound science and are there to protect our nation's children. As these laws come under scrutiny, I urge parents to speak up in support of mandated vaccinations in schools and daycare facilities.
Opting out of vaccinations for children should be done only after careful deliberation with a licensed medical provider, and state laws should require that any parent who wishes to do so be informed of the serious consequences to their child and other children. And above all, vaccinations should not be politicized. For hundreds of years, politicians on both sides of the aisles have supported vaccinations by making real and meaningful laws to protect the public's health. Let's not turn children's health into a battle ground.
Rosalynn Carter is the co-founder of Every Child By Two - Carter/Bumpers Champions for Immunization