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Indeed, vaccines have helped temper and tame illnesses that for generations inflicted pain and death, but the fading memory of those illnesses is among the reasons health care providers cite to explain the growing rates of children and adults not getting the immunizations currently available.
"This is one of the great difficulties of vaccination strategies: we have been the victims of our own success," Dr. Tony Moody, director of the Laboratory of B cell Immunotechnology at the Duke Human Vaccine Institute (DHVI), said. "People don't remember what measles really looks like. People don't remember diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis. I don't think we want to go back to those those times, but people don't realize that in order to prevent those times from coming back, you have to have protection against it."
Before COVID-19, the health care industry was focused on the reemergence of measles. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), measles cases were confirmed as early as January 2018. By that summer, health officials reported 107 cases in 21 states, including three in North Carolina (all in Johnston County).
The ABC11 I-Team, at the time, collaborated with investigative teams at ABC-Owned Television Stations across the country to analyze local measles vaccination rates and found local schools in communities nationwide that are below what's considered the community or "herd" immunity rate. According to the World Health Organization, up to 95% of people in a population need to be vaccinated against measles to make sure the rest of a population is safe from the highly contagious disease.
Now several months later, data obtained by the I-Team shows an average of 93% of students are vaccinated at North Carolina schools.
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The measles vaccination is 97 percent effective, according to health officials. High-risk groups for severe illness from the virus include pregnant women, infants and people considered immunocompromised or immunosuppressed.
"People go, 'Well, why do we still need these things?'" Dr. Moody said. "Well, these bugs are still out there. We haven't eradicated them. There's really only one bug we've eradicated and that's smallpox."
When it comes to COVID-19, Dr. Moody cited preliminary research that suggests roughly 80% of the population will need to be immunized to develop herd immunity--lower than the measles standard, but higher than that of the flu.
Influenza, moreover, might actually be the model for a novel coronavirus vaccine because flu shots are widely accessible, cheap and effective at preventing death.
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"I think if you look at how most immune responses work to most respiratory diseases, having antibodies against this virus, it would make a lot of sense that that would be protective," Dr. Moody said. "I think you're going to see that people are really going to try to get to a strategy that will cover for a longer period of time, the way that we're trying to do for flu. And if we can solve the flu problem, we can probably solve the coronavirus problem too."
The flu shot, however, as effective and accessible as it is, is even less popular: just 54.9% of North Carolinians got the shot last flu season, which is better than the national average (49.2%) but well below the target of 70%.
"As a department we want to focus on removing barriers and improving access for people to get vaccinated," Dr. Kelly Kimple, director of Women's and Children's Health at the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, said. "Vaccines in general are an incredible public health accomplishment and the goal is to prevent illness and in many cases prevent death."
According to Dr. Kimple, vaccination rates might also be decreasing this year because more families have been staying home and avoiding routine doctors appointments during the pandemic.
She said state officials are also considering challenges related to distribution if and when a vaccine for the coronavirus is available.
"If a vaccine rolled out and we were not able to have a high number of doses, this is something you would look at a priority population," she said, adding that first responders and children might be the first recommended to get the vaccine, since first responders could potentially come into contact with more infected people and children can develop an inflammatory disease after infection.