Immunization for infectious disease is considered to be one of the world's major public health successes. Recently, there has been encouraging news that 80 percent of preschoolers are fully immunized against the major childhood infectious diseases, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is an all-time high immunization rate for our country. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported this year that chickenpox immunizations for children increased to 84.8 percent in 2003, from 80.6 percent in 2002.
Although that news is encouraging, we still have disparities in immunizations among several population groups. As with so many health indicators, the country's poor are less likely to receive immunizations than their more affluent peers, despite the widespread effort to provide free or low-cost health care to millions of children. Nearly 8 million of our country's children lack health insurance, yet at least 4 million of these uninsured kids are eligible for free or low-cost care, including immunizations.
How can we get the immunization message out? As kids board school buses and head back to the classrooms, they and their parents and grandparents and other caregivers are primed to hear a public health message about immunizations. Improving access and coverage percentages involves a multi-faceted effort by all of us who care about public health.
First, get involved to identify underserved populations that require immunizations at all age groups in your community. Then create a sense of urgency in the community for immunizations. Highlight statistics that show a healthy child has a better chance at performing well in school. Something as simple as a coloring contest advertised at a local supermarket can shed light on immunization issues. And it's never too early to start talking about childhood immunizations. Tie that message into outreach linked to childhood immunizations.
Next, work with a broad range of providers, insurers and advocates to craft and implement effective programs. Depending on your individual community needs, that might mean linking with a university hospital, community clinic or public health department to offer free immunization clinics. Never overlook the power of community partnerships linking businesses with public health and social service providers. This is where people live, and they will hear you.
Another important step is to educate providers about missed opportunities within their own practices to ensure they immunize all of their patients. If a younger sibling is along for big sister's back-to-school checkup, ask about the younger child's immunization status.
Of course, all the outreach in the world cannot make up for a lack of monetary resources, the kind that can lead to vaccine shortages or improper outreach in our neediest communities. The cost of vaccines are increasing while the expense of running public health programs exceeds available funding. Meanwhile, the last 20 percent of the nation's population represents the hardest to reach segment, and more money is required to reach those residents. We all must support efforts to increase funding for immunization programs.
For ideas on outreach efforts that can bring health care to children whose families don't even realize they qualify for assistance, visit the Web site of Covering Kids and Families, www.coveringkidsandfamilies.org. The American Public Health Association is one of just many groups that has partnered with this campaign in hopes of expanding health care access to children and their families. They have ideas that will work in your community, and they represent the kind of collaboration that will improve immunization rates and coverage for years to come.
Let's send our kids back to school with all their immunizations, and let's work together to make sure they and their families continue to have access to preventive public health.