SPRINGFIELD — The U.S. is on pace to shatter the record of measles cases in any year since the disease was declared eliminated in 2000.
While the nation’s worst outbreak is occurring in New York City, Illinois is not immune, with seven recorded cases of measles this year.
That’s already the highest number of cases in the past six years in Illinois, with the exception of 2015 when there were 17 reported cases. The state is one of 10 with reported measles cases this year.
The disease’s alarming recurrence, coupled with a growing tide of anti-vaccine messages, has led Illinois’ largest public health advocacy group to take action.
Tom Hughes is executive director of the Illinois Public Health Association, which represents most of the state’s local health departments and many public health employees.
Hughes is in talks with health care providers, insurers and vaccine distributors to combat the outbreak by restarting a part of the state’s Vaccines for Children (VFC) program, which in 2016 was discontinued for children enrolled in the state-funded Children’s Health Insurance Plan.
“At the time, health care providers should have been using VFC vaccines only for VFC children,” Hughes said. “If a child was covered by private insurance, you wouldn’t be using VFC.”
But, he added, there was “no good accounting of what vaccine was being used for what child,” so the state pulled the program and stopped providing the vaccines.
The IPHA is requesting $3 million to support a previous Illinois Department of Public Health grant to purchase and distribute vaccines, Hughes said in an op-ed piece sent to Illinois newspapers.
CHIP children who used to rely on VFC vaccines now may, or may not, be getting their vaccines, he said. And while health care providers still are reimbursed by the state for the costs of vaccinating CHIP kids, some local health departments and pediatric doctors have stopped doing that due to the slow pace of state reimbursement and the large upfront costs of stockpiling vaccines.
“Pediatric doctors and local health departments can’t wait six to eight months to get reimbursed,” Hughes said.
To help cover where VFC left off, Hughes’ association is now looking to partner with vaccine wholesalers and distributors, such as FFF Enterprises, to stock providers’ shelves with vaccines.
The reimbursements from the state, when they come, would go through the provider back to the association.
Hughes said with the discounts coming from the association’s partnerships and bulk buying, the model is expected to provide a long-term and sustainable supply of vaccines for providers throughout the state.
“Here we have measles back nationally in almost 600 cases, and that’s just unheard of,” Hughes said. “I think we have to do a better job of making certain that parents understand the safety and the need to prevent childhood diseases.”
Because state law mandates children be vaccinated to enroll in schools, Hughes said he hopes to get the program, along with a social media campaign to combat anti-vaccine messages, running by late summer and in time for the start of school in the fall.
Still, however, some Illinois children don’t get vaccinations because of religious exemptions or lack of school enforcement.
“There’s no reason for children to be delayed in getting back into school, we have a responsibility for that,” Hughes said.