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Needed--Shot in the Arm

March 07, 1993

The death last week of Dr. Albert Sabin, creator of the oral polio vaccine, may remind grateful older Americans of a great medical victory. But the appalling truth is that when it comes to preventable diseases the United States is losing the war.

The World Health Organization estimated in 1990 that, thanks to a vigorous, five-year effort, 80% of babies in the developing countries were immunized against the main childhood diseases. In contrast, in 1985 when the Reagan Administration decided to discontinue immunization surveying here, the U.S. rate had dropped below two-thirds.

The results of this U.S. decline began to appear a few years later. In 1989, 18,193 cases of measles were recorded, up from just 1,497 cases in 1983. During 1989-91 about 55,000 cases were recorded, a shock that led the Centers for Disease Control to ask state health officials to do an emergency immunization survey. The results, reported by Mary Graham in the March edition of The Atlantic, are frightening. The nation's immunization rate is down to 56%; California's is down to 48%. Much lower rates obtain in some urban areas--18% in Houston.

In a nation where 1 million board planes each day, this failure cannot and will not be confined to any social or economic class. The reasons for the failure are complex, but turning that failure into success by the creation of an effective national vaccination program is the most cost-effective health investment ($15 saved for every dollar spent) that the Clinton Administration could possibly make.

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