To Improve Your State’s Health, Vaccinate

How can your state become healthier in a hurry? Vaccinate. In the United Health Foundation’s latest America’s Health Rankings, two states, Maine and North Carolina, vaulted up 5 spots and 6 spots, respectively, in a large part due to the success of improving immunization rates in their states.

Maine, the rural state of about 1.3 million, improved its ranking from the 20th spot in 2014 to 15th spot in 2015, almost entirely due to increased immunization rates among its toddlers. Maine is now our nation’s leader in immunizing children between the ages of 19 and 35 months, climbing from 35th in the nation in just a year’s time. Healthcare providers surveyed in the state reported that immunization rates among their young patients rose from 68 percent to 84.7 percent. The national immunization rate for the seven vaccines recommended for that age by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention is just 71.6 percent.

The drastic change came largely through a very determined and coordinated effort by the state’s CDC and various local health organizations. Over five years, they targeted federal grant monies mainly at education programs for 24 selected healthcare providers across the state. Getting to both young physicians still in training and the more established and trusted family doctors was of particular importance and proved very effective. Success also came from making better and more current information available directly to parents and guardians through a bright and engaging new website and blog, Vax Maine Kids. Also very importantly, patient information sheets on vaccinations were rewritten to make them more straightforward and easier to read.

North Carolina, the most improved state in terms of health in 2015, moved from ranking 37th in 2014 to ranking 31st in 2015. Increased immunization rates were a big reason why. The Tar Heel state follows Maine as the second highest state in the country for child immunizations. 80.8 percent of toddlers received the recommended doses of the seven childhood vaccines, up from 72 percent in 2014. The state also faired well in human papillomavirus (HPV) immunization coverage, ranking 1st in the country for the percentage of females between the ages 13 and 17 that received the recommended three doses of the HPV Vaccine, Gardasil 9. In North Carolina, 54 percent of female adolescents received the vaccine. Nationally, HPV immunization coverage is only 39.7 percent.

The state’s improvement in vaccination rates came with a greater focus around prevention. North Carolina’s Division of Public Health made efforts to educate and promote the population on preventive measures—getting vaccinated, exercising and eating healthy. Despite the state’s success ranking in the highest position since the report’s first publication in 1990, there is still much work to do to further improve the state’s overall ranking.

As a country, we also certainly have much more work to do. We need to improve immunization rates to protect against vaccine-preventable diseases. Hopefully the rest of the nation can look to these states for leadership on improving their vaccination rates and better protecting the health of their residents.