How Two Extraordinary Women Joined Forces to Help Save Lives
Aug 04, 2011
It was the summer of ‘91. The internet had recently been developed and one million computers were already online. The vehicle airbag was patented and the universal number for emergency calls, “911”, was being tested throughout the nation. Operation Desert Storm was underway to eject Iraqi forces from Kuwait and Boris Yeltsin had just won the first free election ever held in Russia.
While the rest of the country was clearly distracted by other matters, the public health community was in frenzy addressing a growing numbers of measles cases. In the previous two years, more than 55,000 cases of measles had surfaced in the U.S., hospitalizing nearly 11,000 and killing 123 people. Comparatively, for most of the 1980s, the average number of cases was typically about 3,000 per year.
It was clear that continued outbreaks would needlessly take the lives of more and more people. Debate among public health figures ensued over whether this reflected a failure to reach and immunize infants, who were the predominant victims of the disease, or whether it was necessary to add a second booster dose to protect adolescents. To complicate matters, several of the 1989 outbreaks were circulating among college students. As usual, the cost of the outbreaks was straining the lean public health budgets and the debate often centered on the cost of implementing that second dose. Fortunately, common sense prevailed and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices made the second dose recommendation and the outbreaks eventually quelled.
But, the specter of another devastating outbreak galvanized many individuals in the medical, public health and government agencies. It was time to take a good, hard look at the U.S. vaccination system and it was determined that the main cause of the measles resurgence was the failure to vaccinate preschool age children.
“Missed Opportunities” became the catchphrase for a health community determined to eliminate immunization barriers and ensure that families received timely vaccinations for their infants. The Bush Administration responded by developing Immunization Action Plans (IAPs), led by then Secretary of Health and Human Services, Louis Sullivan. Sullivan had visited six high-risk six cities to assess vaccination barriers. He used this information to create a model for the IAPs. His work helped determine how to best utilize available funds, address additional financial needs that would be required to eliminate vaccination barriers and achieve 90% immunization coverage. This was a major step towards laying the foundation for standard immunization practices, as all states and major cities were eventually required to submit IAPs for approval by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In another response to these measles outbreaks, The National Vaccine Advisory Committee (NVAC), which reports to the Assistant Secretary of Health on matters related to vaccinations, completed a “white paper” in 1991 underscoring the necessary steps to avoid another outbreak. This NVAC report focused on the many financial issues that needed resolution such as developing immunization standards, encouraging private and public health partnerships, improving insurance coverage, and developing immunization coalitions at state and local levels to build the political base for action and implementation of key policies. This last goal became a major impetus for the formation of an organization called Every Child By Two (ECBT).
One of the NVAC committee members happened to be Mrs. Betty Bumpers, Former First Lady of Arkansas and wife of Senator Dale Bumpers. Betty Bumpers’ successful campaign to improve vaccination rates in Arkansas and later nationwide, eventually became a model used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the 1970s, she had spent years working with Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter as first ladies of their home states of Georgia and Arkansas. They shared a great deal of interest, experience and passion for immunizations that could save the lives of children. In fact, during the Carter Administration, they worked together to ensure the passage of state laws which would require vaccination prior to school entry. By the time the Carters left office, measles cases were at an all time low, allowing for much celebration and a hiatus for their vaccine partnership.
Sadly, it was the measles outbreaks in the early 90s that spurred them to once again take action and establish Every Child By Two. Rosalynn Carter, co-founder of ECBT, explains, “I called Betty me up and asked ‘What are we going to do about all these babies dying?” Within a month or so they had an office set up in Washington, D.C. and had hired an Executive Director. And so, in August of 1991 Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter and Former First Lady of Arkansas Betty Bumpers teamed up once again to save the lives of precious children.
By the end of ECBT’s first year, Rosalynn and Betty had already made presentations at the National Governor’s Association Meeting and traveled to meet with leaders in twenty different states. They laid the groundwork to encourage timely vaccination of WIC recipients and had called upon several major insurance companies to request 100% coverage for routine medical care, including immunizations.
Now, twenty years later, Every Child By Two is celebrating their anniversary by highlighting the many significant achievements in immunizations that have led to the highest vaccination rates in recorded history, the near elimination of racial and ethnic disparities in immunization, and record low levels of diseases. Collaborations with many dedicated partner organizations, family advocates and government agencies have been key to the achievements in vaccines. We’ve come a long way, but we still have much to do to protect the 12,000 babies born every day here in the U.S. and to extend our impact to also save the lives of children abroad.
Stay tuned for more flashbacks throughout this anniversary year.
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