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Fábregas: Vaccine access crucial

Luis Fábregas

In the ideal world, Stephanie Ross would have been protected against the infection that killed her.

Stephanie is the Drexel University sophomore who died last week of a strain of meningococcal disease for which there is no vaccine — in the United States.

You see, there is a vaccine against the Type B strain that infected Stephanie. Just not here. The vaccine is licensed in Europe, Canada and Australia.

If it’s not approved for use in the United States, look no further than the Food and Drug Administration. The federal agency is deeply influenced by the ever-powerful anti-vaccine lobby and vaccine manufacturers simply don’t want to deal with that.

“If manufacturers have an innovative vaccine, they’ll go for approval first in Europe because they know that’s an easier approval process,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious diseases physician at UPMC, told me. “They don’t want go through all the headaches of dealing with the anti-vaccine lobby.”

And there you have it. The Jenny McCarthys of the world are putting our children and others at risk. McCarthy is the TV talk show host who swears vaccines cause autism. She’s been on a crusade against vaccines since her son developed autism-like symptoms that she claims are the fault of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine.

To be clear, cases of meningitis are at an all-time low, and there is no resurgence of the disease. About 500 cases were reported last year, and only one-third of them were caused by the B strain. The media simply highlight cases because they are so rare and tend to hit young and seemingly healthy students on college campuses.

However, there is evidence that illnesses such as measles, which have been all but eradicated, are making a most unwelcome comeback. We’re seeing it in New York city, where health authorities say a rare outbreak infected at least 20 people. Cases have popped up in Boston and San Francisco. We had one case of measles in Allegheny County last month, and while it wasn’t part of a larger outbreak, it brought close to home the reality of this re-emergence.

Trained scientists — not Jenny McCarthy — warn that when parents decide not to vaccinate their children, we lose “herd immunity,” which means the majority of people in a community need to be vaccinated to reduce the chance of chain infections. In “protecting” their children against unproven complications, anti-vaccine parents put others at risk, including babies too young to be vaccinated.

Makes you wonder whether these parents would be brave enough to take their unvaccinated children to Nigeria or Pakistan, where polio is still endemic. Would they put their children at risk for a horrible disease that left thousands of children paralyzed in the 1950s right here in the United States?

The FDA should fast-track the Type B meningococcal vaccine that’s available in other countries. Officials have concluded that it is beneficial in some outbreak situations and allowed its use during outbreaks at Princeton University and the University of California, Santa Barbara. If it was safe enough for them, what’s the holdup?

We can’t afford to lose more people like Stephanie Ross. She was only 19 and studying mechanical engineering. Had she had access to this vaccine, chances are she wouldn’t be dead.

Luis Fábregas is Trib Total Media’s medical editor. He can be reached at 412-320-7998 or [email protected].


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