Health care priorities

April 12, 1991

Yesterday, Greater Baltimore Medical Center broke ground on a major expansion, with projected costs exceeding $100 million. But the previous day, almost 300 children at Roland Park Elementary-Middle School were sent home because they could not offer proof of immunization against measles. Such are the stories of modern American medical care.

For those who have access to the health care system this country offers state-of-the-art medical care, without question the best in the world. At the same time the nation has been neglecting such basics as immunization programs. As a result, measles -- a contagious disease that can lead to serious complications or even death -- is popping up in schools. Last year there were 18,000 cases of measles in the United States, with 50 deaths. That should rate as a national scandal.

During the past decade, childhood immunization rates have been rising in the Third World, from as low as 2 percent to around 50 percent. Meanwhile, immunization rates in this country have been moving in the opposite direction. In the 1970s, the federal government made efforts to encourage childhood immunizations, but that emphasis dissipated during the Reagan years. Now, ironically, immunization rates of 2-year-olds in the United States have fallen from about 80 percent to around 50 percent -- just about even with many Third World countries.

We hear a lot about money crunches in health care, but money isn't really the issue when it comes to poor immunization rates. There are plenty of free clinics around that offer the shots. Too often, the real problem is simply a lack of awareness that childhood diseases can have serious repercussions -- and that those diseases can easily be prevented.

It's great to have facilities like GBMC offering quality care for sick people. But it's tragic not to take the simple, preventive steps that can keep people from getting sick in the first place.

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