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Vaccines are “magical.” Vaccines are “the most effective public health tool.” Vaccines are a “smart investment.” Vaccines “save lives.”

These were the messages reinforced by politicians as well as key global health influencers and leaders earlier this month at the GAVI pledging conference where world leaders gathered to pledge $4.3 billion for vaccinations in developing countries. Recently, Global health leaders gathered in Seattle to continue the vaccines dialogue at a World Affairs Council event titled “Vaccines: The Global Health Miracle.”

The event was facilitated by the President and CEO of PATH; Dr. Chris Elias. The panel consisted of a diverse group of vaccine experts and advocates. Ms. Helen Evans, Interim CEO of the GAVI Alliance; Dr. Zulfiqar Bhutta, the noordin noormahmed sheriff professor & founding chair of the Division of Maternal and Child Health at the Aga Khan University in Karachi, Pakistan; Dr. Alan Aderem, director of Seattle Biomed; and finally, Dr. David Fleming, director and health officer for Public Health – Seattle & King County.

The panel discussed:

1. The importance of prioritizing funding for vaccines as a public health tool.

2. The challenges associated with distributing vaccines to help eradicate disease around the world.

3. Future challenges in research and development of “more difficult” vaccines (HIV, malaria and tuberculosis).

4. The challenge of addressing a prominent “vaccine hesitancy” in the U.S. and King County in particular.

I want focus on the fourth point, because despite all the global health experts we have in Seattle, the issue of vaccinating in Washington often gets overlooked. According to Dr. Fleming, in King County, 20 percent of people choose not to vaccinate. While global health leaders and U.S. politicians spend millions helping vaccinate those overseas who don’t have access to this lifesaving tool, too many Americans are neglecting the privilege to vaccinate.

Do we blame media for its misguidance and hyper attention to celebrity characters such as Jenny McCarthy who alludes to there being dangers in choosing to vaccinate? Do we blame fraudulent scientist Dr. Andrew Wakefield for alleging that the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps and rubella) causes autism? Do we blame our government for not being more attentive to vaccine policy? Do we blame the health officials for not adequately educating the public?

Maybe a little bit of all of the above. But as Dr. David Fleming shared on the panel, the problem isn’t that the public is “anti-vaccine”, but rather “vaccine hesitant.” In the midst of everyone’s busy lives, it’s hard to remember when you or your child needs a vaccination.

As Dr. Fleming suggested, there would be great benefit to setting up a call system for vaccination reminders similar to what veterinarians do for our pets. While the global effort to vaccinate is a worthy and ethical responsibility, we need to remember the children in our own backyards – we need to continue to educate, and as a community, support programs that make vaccines more accessible to all.

(Photo Credit: Alan Alabastro)

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