Health and Science

US not doing well on childhood vaccinations: Expert

US lagging in measles immunizations
US lagging in measles immunizations

The United States is falling behind other countries in immunizing children against measles and must step up its efforts, the chairman of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania told CNBC on Thursday.

"The United States lags in many other vaccine immunization rates, and I think we really have to confront the fact that we are not doing well," Ezekiel Emanuel said in a "Squawk Box" interview.

The World Health Organization reported this week that 113 countries, including China, Russia, Iran and Libya, have higher immunization rates than the United States for 1-year-olds.

The WHO said 91 percent of the U.S. population is vaccinated against measles, a figure considered low. A recent outbreak of measles in the United States has renewed attention to the debate about vaccinations.

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When the United States falls behind, it undermines its own goal of encouraging nations around the world to immunize their children, Emanuel said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded 102 cases of measles in 14 states in January, most of which are linked to an outbreak at Disneyland.

Last year,. measles cases soared to 644, the highest number of infections since the United States declared the country measles-free in 2000.

The outbreak has been widely blamed on anti-vaccination advocates, some of whom claim vaccinations can lead to the onset of autism. Studies from the Centers for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health demonstrate there is no link between vaccinations and autism.

Emanuel said there is a streak of libertarianism among many of those who oppose vaccinations, which explains why they put their personal rights ahead of public safety. "When we're talking about viruses and infection, it's really a community issue because we spread it to each other."

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Having schools require immunization for enrollment is an effective method of fighting illnesses, but rather than mandating that students get the vaccinations, the country needs to change its social norm, Emanuel said.

"Our social norm has been, 'Well, it's an individual choice.' We have these exemptions for conscientious reasons which don't have to tie to religion, and we just have to get rid of that," he said.

"I'm hoping that the measles outbreak will re-energize the idea that we're all in this together," he added. "We are interconnected, certainly when it comes to vaccines and public health issues, and we all have to contribute."

As for vaccinations for other illnesses, Emanuel said the public should take a risk-to-benefit approach and consider how serious that illness is. The focus should be on illnesses on which there is a very strong consensus that immunizations are beneficial.