Governor’s disease task force should expand scope beyond Zika

Under a sign warning about Zika virus, Josseline Lopez, 22, gets an ultrasound from technician Ivonne Murillo at Legacy Community Health Clinic in Houston on Feb. 25, 2016. Photo by Michael Stravato

Earlier this year the Governor's Task Force for Infectious Diseases was reconvened to continue discussing how to protect the state from infectious diseases. Most of the discussion was centered on Zika, which is appropriate considering its link to devastating consequences for pregnant women.

Certainly, Zika is frightening. All pregnant women, and those trying to conceive, should take precautions, and we hope a vaccine for the virus is developed soon. But it’s important to note that this kind of threat is not new — a number of viruses can lead to poor birth outcomes, several of which we already have vaccines to prevent.

Prior to the introduction of the rubella vaccine, a rubella outbreak in the United States in 1964-1965 resulted in 12.5 million cases and 20,000 babies being born with Congenital Rubella Syndrome. CRS develops when a pregnant woman is infected with the rubella virus — and just like Zika, it can lead to serious birth defects and lifelong problems, such as eye and heart defects, hearing impairment, and intellectual disabilities. The outbreak in just that one year cost an estimated $840 million, not including the emotional toll undertaken by the families involved.

Thanks to safe and effective vaccination, the number of reported cases of rubella and Congenital Rubella Syndrome have plummeted by more than 99 percent in the United States, but rubella still exists in many parts of the world because many people cannot access the potentially life-saving vaccine. Nearly 50 years after the introduction of the rubella vaccine, more than 100,000 babies are born with CRS every year worldwide.

But rubella isn’t the only disease that can affect the health of a growing baby.

Influenza — a disease affecting on average between 5 and 20 percent of the U.S. population annually — can lead to preterm labor and premature birth, and some research suggests that fever caused by flu early in pregnancy can lead to birth defects. Not to mention the high death toll the virus racks up each and every year — an average of 23,000 people in the United States annually.

The CDC recommends that everyone over the age of 6 months receive a flu vaccine — especially pregnant women. Yet only 34 percent of adults under age 50 in Texas were vaccinated in the 2014-2015 flu season.

The Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is estimated to be linked to 5 percent of all cancers worldwide, most notably cervical cancer. More than 27,000 cases of cancer are caused by HPV each year in the U.S. — more than 10,000 of those are cervical cancer. Even with great early detection and treatment, cervical cancer can wreak havoc on a woman’s body and affect her lifelong chances of having a healthy, full-term pregnancy.

Depending on its formulation, the HPV vaccine protects against 2 or 7 of the virus types most commonly associated with cancer, allowing us to prevent roughly 80 percent of all cervical cancers in the United States — not to mention a host of other cancers occurring in both men and women. Yet in Texas, only 1 in 3 young women and 1 in 5 young men have received all three doses of this potentially life-saving vaccine. For every year that we continue to have these low HPV vaccination rates, another 4,400 women will go on to develop cervical cancer.

Vaccination is one of the greatest public health achievements in human history. We have the ability to protect the health and safety of families here in Texas, including those most vulnerable among us.

Although the majority of Texans choose to immunize, we still have a ways to go. Vaccine coverage for HPV and flu are low and stagnant, and non-medical exemptions from school vaccination requirements for diseases like measles and pertussis continue to rise around the state.

While a vaccine against Zika might be years away, we have the ability to protect Texas from dangerous diseases right now. The Governor’s Task Force should consider expanding its priorities to include vaccine-preventable diseases and addressing non-medical exemptions.

Anna C. Dragsbaek

President and CEO of The Immunization Partnership

@ADragsbaek

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