WITH A CHILD'S CHANCE of getting polio now extremely remote, probably few of us can quickly or clearly remember that great effort expended during the 1950s and early 1960s to immunize children against this and other serious infectious diseases. In fact, it is perhaps this forgetfulness on the part of parents and health officials that largely accounts for the alarming rise in reported cases of measles. But the cause of the increase aside, the report that the Department of Health, Education and Welfare is gearing up a major new federal immunization program is welcome news.
The national program is aimed primarily at reducing the surge in measles cases in young children. Fortunately, the reports of children's coming down with polio, rubella, whooping cough, diptheria, tetanus and mumps are still few in number, as they have been for a decade. The rise in reported measles cases doesn't come close to the pre-1960s yearly average of 500,000.
But measles can cause brain damage and even death. According to the National Center for Disease Control, 52,290 cases of measles were reported nationally during the first seven months of 1977, an increase of about 20,000 over the comparable period in 1976. Not all states experienced significant increases. In the District, for example, the number of reported cases increased only by 9, from 11 to 20. But in Virginia reported cases jumped from 730 as of August, 1976 to 2,628 so far this year. And, though the total number of cases officials said there was a major outbreak of 348 cases in one county.
The federal government is preparing to increase substantially its support of state immunization programs (from $4.9 million in fiscal year 1976 to $19 million this fiscal year) and health officials in Maryland, Virginia and the District as elsewhere are expanding their programs to reach more children. What should help, in addition to greater diligence among the parents and family doctors, is strict enforcement of the existing state laws and local regulations that require schoolchildren, with few exceptions, to be immunized. The need for children to be protected from these maladies has definitely not diminished.