Measles outbreak forces military to dramatically ramp up vaccination efforts

Written by by Marcus Dansie, CNN

In early September, nearly 3,000 active duty personnel living in the Fort Lee, Virginia, and Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, military bases were given extra time to either get their vaccines or comply with the military’s personal immunization requirements.

But that won’t be the case for the next couple of weeks.

Still, as measles in the US surges, one segment of the military continues to face the steepest challenge: those who remain undiagnosed or unvaccinated.

The last time CNN spoke to Dr. Morgan Walker, director of the Hospital Epidemiology Center at the Virginia Commonwealth University, the rate of children and adults unvaccinated at Fort Lee had soared, but by the following May was in the single digits and significantly lower than in other parts of the country.

“We’re seeing more and more of the (unvaccinated) family population that’s here that we think are probably on the border line of a (not-at-risk) population,” Walker said.

“So we were predicting that our community is going to continue to tick up, and I think that’s probably the best way to put it.”

Walker said that other medical community’s predictions have been right on target, but he believes that getting those unvaccinated folks vaccinated is more of a therapy than anything else.

“I think we are seeing a lot of very innovative new ways of trying to get (vaccinated) persons on board. Probably a total of about seven or eight outlets from probably nine or 10 options that we do have now, and the last couple of years it’s gone pretty well in trying to get persons on board,” he said.

While this potentially dangerous issue may still be on the military’s radar, Walker expects the rates to dip over the next few months. “It will continue to tick up and down,” he said.

“Maybe it will stay at about 3% for a couple of years. Once they’re done checking their kids’ paperwork, the stress of them getting the vaccine, the one in 3,000-type event of them getting sick at their work, on the base, or on their shift, or they have a medical condition that they’re not diagnosed or being able to cover it because it’s medical. Maybe there’s something they discovered, but they weren’t around for the moment.”

But the task, he admits, will be harder. “They’re going to have an additional challenge,” he said. “The reality is it takes a lot of time, they’ve gotta be out there for an extended amount of time, and the numbers are still very high. And there might be some other pockets or communities like that where there’s still a high level of people who are not on board.”

The military has been tasked with completing a measles vaccination policy by the end of September, after the Department of Defense exempted members of the military from receiving vaccines due to their state’s parental rights laws.

That exemption has been the subject of growing concern. Defense Secretary James Mattis has repeatedly called on the Pentagon to change this policy.

“We cannot pursue a public health campaign alone. We need, alongside the private sector, state and local health authorities, and religious and other community leaders to work collaboratively on this critical matter,” Mattis wrote in a memo dated April 29.

Military officials have maintained that the office has a separate and non-exempt policy for healthcare providers and opt-in regulations.

Determined to combat preventable illnesses such as measles, too few citizens have come forward, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The primary remaining vaccination hurdle, according to the CDC’s case count estimates, is accessibility.

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