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As Disease Outbreaks Increase, Kentucky Grapples With Vaccine Awareness

Dawn Balcom, University of Louisville Family Nurse Practitioner
Dawn Balcom, University of Louisville Family Nurse Practitioner

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Why does Louisville have so many fish fries?

Across the country, diseases like measles which were once almost eradicated are making a resurgence, and experts say lower vaccination rates in some communities are to blame.

In Kentucky, there have been two confirmed cases of measles, along with outbreaks of other infectious diseases like hepatitis A and chickenpox. These highly-contagious illnesses can be prevented by vaccines, too, but skepticism among some people about vaccine safety combined with religious objections may affect efforts to keep such diseases in check

Several experts on vaccines and infectious diseases talked about the status of vaccine-hesitancy and how it affects Kentucky during WFPL’s In Conversation with Rick Howlett. Those guests were:

  • Dr. Jeffrey Howard, Kentucky Public Health Commissioner
  • Dawn Balcom, University of Louisville Family Nurse Practitioner
  • Cameual Wright, CareSource Medical Director

Kentucky Health Commissioner Dr. Jeffrey Howard says the state continues to battle outbreaks of hepatitis A and other illnesses, and vaccinations are the key to success. Howard says he appreciates concerns raised about the safety of vaccines, but various claims that some vaccines are linked to autism are false.

“Kentucky is a state that values its personal liberties, and some strongly want to opt out of vaccination,” Howard said. “My job as commissioner, and my department's job as the department of public health, is make sure people are aware of the pros and cons of vaccination.”

Declining vaccinations has been linked to a rise in measles cases in some communities. U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said two weeks ago that the recent measles outbreak has led to the most cases of the disease since 2000.

Caresource Medical Director Dr. Cameual Wright, who is based in Indianapolis, says the measles outbreak affects Indiana, too.

“We are seeing a resurgence of these conditions that we previously had combated,” Wright said. “We certainly don’t want people to choose not to be vaccinated or to have parents choose to have their children not vaccinated.”

Local agencies offered low-priced vaccinations in response, but some people still question vaccines and their effectiveness. One Northern Kentucky high school student sued his local health department for banning him and other unvaccinated students from school during a chickenpox outbreak. That student contracted chickenpox last week.

Dawn Balcom, a University of Louisville Family Nurse Practitioner, says all vaccines have some risks but ultimately save people.

“The risk of the vaccine is so much less than the risk of the illness,” Balcom said. “I believe that we really need to open up this conversation and listen.”

Join us next week on WFPL’s In Conversation as we discuss toxic air pollution in Louisville.

Kyeland Jackson is an Associate Producer for WFPL News.

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