Experts to Congress: Uptick in preventable outbreaks 'alarming,' needs more funding to address

What's one of the best times to convince a parent to vaccinate their child? 

It just might be before their baby is born, Saad Omer, MBBS, MPH, Ph.D., a professor in the Emory Vaccine Center, told the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions on Tuesday. 

"There’s evidence to suggest a lot of parents are making their decision around vaccines before the baby is born," Omer said. "After the baby is born, it’s like fast-moving train and parents go through this extended jet lag."

His primary message: They need to prioritize funding not only in vaccine science but also in understanding the best way to communicate with the public around vaccines.

He was testifying as part of an expert panel—which included an 18-year-old who garnered national attention recently for getting vaccinated against his parents' wishes—that raised alarms about the impact of misleading information on vaccine rates and resulting upticks in outbreaks of preventable diseases.

“While recent outbreaks have been contained, the frequency and the size of these outbreaks have been particularly alarming,” Omer told the committee.

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The hearing came just a week after another congressional hearing held to examine a significant rise in measles cases in the U.S., particularly in Washington state. That state has had 71 cases of measles in the last few months.

John Wiesman, DrPH, MPH, who is Washington's secretary of health, said his state has been racing to find better ways to communicate with parents who are hesitant to vaccinate. 

“We need to be looking at how it is we get to the hearts and minds of people around vaccines and to not put science on the shelf," he said. "We need to have this national conversation and a national campaign that is based on evidence."

Concerns about autism

The hearing also came a day after the release of a study examining 650,000 children that found no link between the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella and autism.

During the hearing, Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., asked each of the panelists about the fear held by many parents about a link between vaccinations and autism—as well as the impact that fear has on their decision to vaccinate. A paper published in The Lancet more than 20 years ago was long ago retracted after the author admitted to falsifying the information, but the concerns among many parents have persisted. 

Have there been other journal articles since that have found a link? Alexander asked.

"There have not been that agreed with that position. There have been numerous studies in the interim that have shown just the opposite, that these vaccines are not linked," testified Jonathan McCullers, M.D., the pediatric chairman of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. "The Institute of Medicine, here in the United States is our highest authority on these sort of issues, has declared this is uniformly, basically a closed issue now."