One of the state's top health officials says he's concerned about the growing number of Louisianians rejecting vaccinations for their children in light of a recent resurgence of measles cases around the country.
Dr. Alexander Billioux, assistant secretary of health for the state's Department of Health, on Monday told members of the Baton Rouge Press Club there haven't yet been any measles cases reported in Louisiana connected to a global outbreak that has fostered related cases in more than 22 other states.
But, he said, that could change given an uptick in the number of exemptions that parents are filing for their kids because they fear negative side effects from vaccinations.
"If these trends continue, we're not just worrying about New York and Washington where we're seen the outbreak happening, I'm worried about what could happen in our state," Billioux said.
Billioux's advocacy in defense of vaccinations Monday came a week after State Sen. John Milkovich, (D-Shreveport), went on an anti-vaccinations rant during floor discussions on a bill that would expand a voluntary statewide immunization database.
Milkovich claimed the presence of aluminum and mercury in vaccinations is dangerous and caused autism, going on to to tell legislators that "autism did not exist" when he was a child and that "tissue from aborted babies is now used in vaccines."
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The state Health Department is increasing its campaign to debunk claims like Milkovich's which he asserted there is little to no scientific evidence to support, Billioux said.
"They're welcome to have these concerns but the data is clear: (Vaccinations) are safe and effective, and critically important," he said.
But despite the clear evidence they are safe and effective, Billioux said, a small group of people continue to reject having their kids vaccinated.
Children in Louisiana are required to receive vaccinations before entering daycare or school, which Billioux said puts Louisiana near the top of lists that chart the levels of vaccinated school-aged kids. However, parents can request that their children be exempted from being vaccinated for medical or religious/philosophical reasons.
According to the LDHH, the state's exemption rate rose 0.3 percent between the 2016-17 and 2017-'18 school year.
In the 2016-17 school year, 54 exemptions were granted to parents and/or legal guardians citing medical reasons, while 396 chose not to vaccinate their children for religious or philosophical reasons.
The number of medical exemptions filed in the 2017-18 school term rose slightly to 61 while exemptions for religious/philosophical reasons jumped to 601 that same term.
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Billioux sought to debunk myths surrounding vaccinations, calling attention to how the vaccination for measles led to the Centers for Disease Control's 2000 declaration the highly contagious disease had been eliminated. He also said the vaccination, for measles in particular, has improved and "gotten better" over time and that multiple studies have found there is "no legitimate link between vaccinates and autism."
The CDC recently revealed the number of reported measles cases in the country has grown to more than 700 so far this year.
The current outbreak was transmitted stateside from people who came from countries with their own challenges in dealing with measles outbreaks, Billioux said. So far, cases related to the current outbreak have been reported in larger, more densely populated, metropolitan areas, he added.
"The last major outbreak we had was in 1994 when we had 965 contract the disease before we eliminated it," he said. "We're behind in protecting ourselves. (Young children) are the most vulnerable and that's where we need to get our numbers up and our message out."