The vials of smallpox discovered last week in a storage room in Washington, D.C., represent more of a Cold War-era oddity than a public health risk.
The vials, likely dead after years at room temperature, join the only other known samples of the virus, which were split between labs in the U.S. and then-Soviet Union when our two countries were facing off across the Iron Curtain.
However, the discovery is also a reminder of the power of immunization. The first vaccine was created to combat smallpox, a devastating disease that killed hundreds of millions across the globe in the 20th century alone before its eradication in 1980.
There are now vaccines available that allow children to avoid many health risks. Yet despite the obvious benefits, too few parents are taking full advantage.
Maine is improving in this area, but too many children here are not up to date on their vaccines, putting others at risk.
Nationwide, childhood immunization rates remain high. There are pockets, however, where rates are at dangerously low levels, leaving the population vulnerable to diseases, such as measles and whooping cough, once thought defeated.
California, for instance, has historically high rates of immunization, but it was hit hard by the whooping cough in 2010. That outbreak has been partly attributed to areas that had below-average immunization rates, which allowed the once-beaten illness to gain a foothold.
There is a similar danger in Maine. Here, five counties, including Kennebec, have more than 80 percent of their 2-year-olds up to date on a series of seven immunizations.
However, four counties — Sagadahoc, Lincoln, Waldo and Hancock — have rates under 60 percent.
If an outbreak were to occur, that is where it would happen, and more than a third of children would have no defense.
Part of that disparity is fueled by a distrust of vaccines. A 1998 study, now discredited by a mountain of rigorous research, linked vaccines to autism, and that suspicion persists. Other parents are skeptical of the motives of the pharmaceutical companies that make the vaccines.
Despite the definitive scientific evidence in favor of vaccines, these worries are enough to dissuade some parents.
Maine parents have a right to exempt their children from vaccination on religious, medical or philosophical grounds, and almost 4 percent did in 2013, according to the CDC.
That’s more than twice the national rate, and the number of exemptions are particularly high in the four coastal counties lagging in overall immunization.
But the exemptions are just a small part of the problem. More often, parents are unable to keep up with the sheer number of shots needed to keep a child’s immunization up to date, because they’re busy, or they’re forgetful, or they can’t get an appointment.
Now, several state initiatives are helping keep immunizations on track.
Maine, much to the state’s credit, offers universal coverage for vaccines through a program funded by providers.
In addition, a state coalition offers information and advice on immunizations through VaxMaineKids.org.
And 20 pediatric and family medicine practices throughout the state, in a program known as First STEPS, have increased their overall up-to-date immunization rates from 74 to 81 percent in 15 months by working with parents to keep their children on schedule.
Because of those initiatives, and others, Maine’s immunization rates appear to be slowly heading in the right direction.
True success, however, means spreading those improvements to the pockets of the state lagging behind.
Vaccines have saved untold millions of lives, and helped millions more live healthier, happier lives. They are a true modern medical miracle, and all children should be able to take advantage.