Measles epidemic: Exclusive Q&A with Walgreens chief medical officer on the efficacy of vaccines


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With nearly 20 states, plus the country's capital, reporting cases of measles, public discussion is once again focusing on the efficacy of vaccination. HellaWella talked exclusively with Harry Leider, M.D., Walgreens chief medical officer, about herd immunity, the science behind the Measles, Mumps, Rubella vaccine and his views on the importance of educating the public.


HW: The measles outbreak in California (and other states) is fueling renewed debate about the importance of immunizations. What are some of the challenges related to under-immunization and how does it threaten “herd immunity” in the communities being affected by the outbreak?

Dr. Leider: The major challenge of under-immunization is that herd immunity depends critically on high immunization rates. Without them (high immunization rates), it is more difficult to protect people who can’t be immunized — particularly babies who are under a year old or those with weakened immune systems — from measles and other contagious diseases.

Because we’ve had what would be considered herd immunity to protect against measles (and many other diseases) in the U.S. for so many years, some people have taken for granted that we won’t see certain diseases again, and have stopped immunizing themselves or their children.  Now we’re starting to see more cases of measles and whooping cough, and it should serve as a wake-up call as it relates to the importance of vaccines and adhering to the vaccine schedules that one’s pediatrician recommends.  


HW: Much of the misinformation that persists about immunization stems from Dr. Andrew Wakefield's now conclusively debunked findings that linked the combined MMR vaccine to autism. Why is MMR the only available inoculation in the U.S. for its related diseases? Is it possible to separate the vaccines?

Dr. Leider: The MMR vaccine has worked well and is the best and the most important protection/preventive measure one can take against measles. It’s extremely effective (estimated at about 98 percent) and stands as the reason measles was essentially eradicated in the U.S. back in 2000.


HW: What steps can scientific authorities take to ensure people understand how vaccines work, and why they are so important? 

Dr. Leider: The most important undertaking for those in the scientific community is to continue to educate and inform the public about the importance of the vaccine and completing the vaccine series, the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine, and to make sure providers of vaccinations have all of the latest information necessary to address consumer questions or concerns.

Walgreens is in frequent communication with its clinicians and health care providers to ensure they have the latest information to help in this regard.


HW: People who are receiving treatment for various cancers — and whose immune systems are compromised by treatment — are taking to social media to implore parents to vaccinate their children. Do you think it would help if trusted names like Walgreens, with the backing of cancer support charities and doctors, were to make this into a media campaign around this movement?

Dr. Leider: The best thing that we can do is to continue to educate patients/customers who have questions about measles, and to remain in frequent communication with our clinicians and healthcare providers so that they have the latest information respective to their community.

The most trusted authorities — such as the CDC, the World Health Organization, and local and state health departments are strongly encouraging vaccinations and we certainly share in their recommendations. 

We also offer easy access to vaccine — with MMR vaccinations available daily at Walgreens pharmacies and Healthcare Clinics in most states. 


HW: What are your thoughts on “pox parties,” where parents intentionally expose young children to diseases such as chicken pox so they can build immunity “naturally"? 

Dr. Leider: Chicken pox (Varicella) is different from the measles.  However, chickenpox is also an uncomfortable and potentially deadly disease.  Children between one and twelve can get a combination MMRV.  We support all immunization recommendations of the CDC, as do many professional groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics


HW: There are people who are skeptical about vaccines and believe them to be dangerous. Science has shown that any dangers posed by vaccines are far outweighed by the diseases they protect us against. When it comes to getting vaccines, are there any medical concerns that people should be aware of regarding age/sex/pre-existing conditions?

Dr. Leider: Those who shouldn’t get the MMR vaccine include: 

  • Anyone who had an allergic reaction to the first MMR shot
  • Anyone allergic to gelatin or neomycin
  • Those who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant in the next 4 weeks
  • Those with weakened immune systems, including those caused by cancer drugs, AIDS or corticosteroids

The best thing anyone can do is talk to a doctor, pharmacist, or other trusted healthcare provider for any personal questions.


HW: We're hearing a lot about measles in the news right now. Are there other resurgent viruses that pose a threat to the population? Are some inoculations more important than others?

Dr. Leider: The big resurgence in recent years has been with pertussis (or whooping cough).  There have been 100,000 cases reported in the U.S. since 2012, and that year (2012) the U.S. had its highest levels of pertussis in more than 50 years.  So along with MMR, the Tdap vaccine may also be recommended depending on your vaccination history, age and health condition.