Dr. Kara Fess has been licensed to practice medicine in Illinois since 2002. She’s seen a lot. There is, however, one thing she’s never done: Treated a case of measles.
And she’d like to keep it that way. To her patients and to parents of small children, she has a message: Please get vaccinated and get your kids vaccinated.
The Illinois Valley has not had a measles outbreak (knock on wood), but local physicians report the nationwide outbreaks have not gone unnoticed locally. Inquiries and walk-in requests for information have risen at local offices and this has been a welcome development for health-care providers frustrated by the anti-vaccine camp.
Fess is among the physicians who said that while inoculation rates haven’t risen — vaccinations rates were strong even before measles made the nightly news — people are inquiring more frequently about getting their shots.
“We have had multiple inquiries from patients, especially parents of young children, about risk of exposure to measles and as to what the current vaccine recommendations are,” said Lisa Clinton, a registered nurse and director of health & safety, infection prevention, transportation for St. Margaret’s Health.
“As always when there is national media attention on a health related issue it brings issues like this to the forefront but this is an opportunity to provide sound and accurate information to the public.”
Fess agreed the calls coming in have been from people asking if they’re up to date with their vaccinations.
“We have had a lot of calls, mostly from people in the community who are questioning whether they are up to date,” Fess observed. “There are a lot of people who want to know if they need a booster and that want to check their immunization status and make sure they’ve had everything they need.”
Fess, for one, is glad. Though the so-called “anti-vaxx” movement put only a small dent in vaccination rates statewide, “Every percentage point makes a huge difference.”
Specifically, the Illinois Department of Public Health reported there are 40,686 unvaccinated kids in Illinois. With 2.1 million students in public and parochial, that’s 1.9% unvaccinated.
While local parents are encouraged (indeed, required) to get shots for their students, they can also rest easy knowing their children aren’t exposed to many un-vaccinated peers. IDPH data showed just three local schools with vaccination rates less than 100% and none below 99%.
Notably, IDPH and the Illinois State Board of Education indicated schools at risk for outbreaks have student vaccination rates of less than 95%.
That’s all vaccines, but Fess said there’s one communicable disease that’s getting disproportionate attention.
“Measles is getting more attention at this point because of the outbreaks,” she said. “The incidence of measles in the United States is higher this year than it’s been in the past 20 years, so it’s drawn a lot of attention.”
That attention, however, appears not to have jolted many in the anti-vaxx set to change their minds and get inoculated. The Hygienic Institute in fact reported a decrease in its adult vaccination volume, though director Carrie Lijewski was quick to point out that could be attributable to more competition. With some vaccines, most notably for flu, available through Walgreen’s and CVS, the Hygienic Institute’s decline might not mean lower participation.
And the overall vaccination rate has been steady.
“As the measles outbreak did not occur here, we have seen no increase,” Lijewski said. “In fact, our patients are fairly well-educated on the value of vaccinations so they bring their children. After all, that is one of the elements that Hygienic Institute was founded on in 1914.”
Clinton agreed that anti-vaccine sentiment hasn’t gained much of a foothold in North Central Illinois.
“If anything there may be a slight decrease (in anti-vaccine beliefs) with all the new studies and education surrounding myths about potential vaccine side effects such as the misconception that vaccines cause autism,” she said. “Once solid scientific studies have been validated it seems the misconceptions are dispelled and concerns are alleviated for most people.”
One problem that seems to persist is timeliness. As Lijewski explained it, parents sometimes delay getting their children vaccinated which means getting extra shots per visit. The result is more tears from kids getting more needles and more cost to the providers.
Springfield hopes to fix that by providing greater outreach to families that lack transportation. IDPH and Gov. J.B. Pritzker unveiled a program to boost vaccination rates by providing mobile health units to neighborhoods with low vaccination rates to hold clinics and provide vaccinations as well as to “targeted events” such as county fairs.
Additionally, IDPH plans to work with religious organizations to sponsor vaccination clinics after services, during vacation Bible school, and near other religious gatherings — and to combat misinformation about vaccines.
“We are taking the threat posed by a rise in measles cases very seriously and are committed to taking action to keep Illinoisans safe,” Pritzker said. “Working across agencies and at all levels of government, we will be taking steps to increase vaccination rates and ensure all of our families are educated about the resources available to them.
“There is no more important responsibility of our state government than keeping Illinoisans healthy and safe, and addressing this threat is a top priority for my administration as we move forward.”
Congress is mulling over action, as well. On May 3, a group of Democratic lawmakers filed H.R. 2527, the Vaccinate All Children Act of 2019, which would require states to step up elementary and secondary school vaccination rates or risk losing federal health funding.