WASHINGTON -- President Clinton is ordering federal officials to study the immunization status of the 5 million children under age 5 who receive government assistance, hoping to increase the rate of American youngsters who are fully vaccinated.
"This is a major step forward to try to ensure children enrolled in WIC, some of our poorest children, are protected," said Dr. Walt Orenstein, referring to the federal nutrition program for Women, Infants and Children.
Orenstein heads the national immunization program for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, in Atlanta.
Clinton was being joined former first lady Rosalynn Carter, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman for the formal announcement of the initiative Monday.
The president's executive memorandum requires the Agriculture Department to study the condition of the children participating in the WIC program. It also directs the USDA and the CDC to develop a national strategic plan to improve immunization rates among at-risk children.
In 1993, less than 63 percent of children under age 3 had received a full course of vaccinations.
Childhood immunization rates are at an all-time high, with more than 90 percent of America's toddlers receiving critical vaccines by age 2. Government officials say they also managed to narrow the gap among racial and ethnic groups with vaccination levels nearly the same for all preschool children.
Still, officials are concerned that in some parts of the country, many children continue to go without vaccinations.
For instance, according to the CDC, low-income, minority children are less likely to be immunized than others. In certain inner-city areas, immunization rates are as low as 65 percent.
That concerns health officials who say those toddlers are at a higher risk for potentially deadly diseases such as diphtheria, poliomyelitis, measles, mumps and rubella.
Data indicates that in 41 states, the immunization rates for children enrolled in WIC are lower than the rates for others in their age group, sometimes by as much as 20 percent.
"One of the most common causes for underimmunization is parents thinking their child is adequately immunized," Orenstein said. The memorandum "basically gives a health provider's review" of children's status.
Under Clinton's order, children who are behind schedule on their immunizations or who do not have their immunization record will be referred to a local health care provider or public health clinic.
Children who are uninsured receive vaccinations at no cost under the Vaccines for Children program.
Studies have indicated that linking immunization services with WIC could improve vaccination coverage by up to 40 percent within 12 months.
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