Health commissioner warns not enough Kentuckians are vaccinated against measles 

Published 11:32 am Wednesday, March 13, 2024

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In a wide-ranging TV interview, state Health Commissioner Steven Stack warned Kentuckians that not enough of them are vaccinated for measles, which he said is an outgrowth of reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic and the measures taken against it.

Stack reflected on his work in the pandemic and talked about other health concerns, including the opioid epidemic, weight-loss drugs and the need for Kentuckians to get more sleep, in an interview that aired Sunday, March 10, on WKYT‘s “Kentucky Newsmakers” with Bill Bryant.As of March 7, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had recorded 45 cases of measles in 17 states: Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington.

Stack said measles was declared eliminated in the U.S. in 2000, but it has returned because vaccination rates have dropped to 90 percent. The disease may be the most contagious, and epidemiologists say 95 percent of a population needs to be vaccinated to protect those who can’t or won’t get the shot.

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Stack said the measles-mumps-rubella (German measles) vaccine has been used since 1971, and is very effective. “We’ve got to get the public I hope, to accept that these tools help to prevent us from having far worse problems, like little babies who can’t get vaccinated getting seriously ill.” Children younger than 6 months are ineligible for vaccination.

Why have vaccination rates for contagious diseases dropped?

“It’s all gotten caught up in the Covid pandemic, in the narrative, in the ideologies that have unfortunately become associated with public health and medical science,” said Stack, a physician.

Asked if he and Gov. Andy Beshear made the right calls in the pandemic, he said “I think we did the best we could with what we knew at the time.” He said Kentucky outperformed most other states, considering its lower health status, which made it more vulnerable.

Stack said he and Beshear “balanced saving the most people [with] other harms that are worse than what you’re trying to prevent.” He said Kentucky’s death toll of 20,000 was “far from what it would have been had we not intervened,” noting that an initial estimate was it could lose 1 to 2 percent of its population: 45,000 to 90,000 people.

Looking ahead, Stack said people 65 and older and those with other risk factors should get a Covid-19 booster this spring, and everyone should get an annual booster, much like has long been done for influenza.

Other health issues

Kentucky leads the nation in the percentage (about 2.1%) of population that has received a prescription for one of the new drugs created to fight obesity and diabetes, which can also aid weight loss.

“Overweight and obesity is a big problem in Kentucky,” Stack said, noting that 38% of Kentuckians weigh too much. “That leads to diabetes, it increased your risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease, like stroke and heart disease. It’s really a major issue for us to address.”

As for the drugs, “People are understandably desperate to find ways to get it under control,” he said. “It’s really too early to say what the long-term outcome of those medications will be. Some people have had wonderful benefits from it, have lost a lot of weight and improved their overall performance. Some individuals have had a difficult time tolerating it: persistent nausea, vomiting, or an unlucky small number with pancreatitis, so time will tell on those.

“Right now I think what we really need to do is try to think about ways to improve our environment so it’s easier to eat healthier — fresh fruits and vegetables — and do mild things, like just go for a walk three or four days a week for 35 to 45 minutes; if you could do simple things like that, most of us could actually lose the small weight that we have to avoid becoming diabetic.”

Kentucky is also one of the states most affected by the opioid epidemic. Stack said it has evolved because “The criminals keep getting more creative in the cocktails they put together and they’re becoming more and more lethal for people.”

Speaking on the weekend that the nation moved its clocks to daylight saving time, Stack said lack of sleep is also a major health issue, especially for teens, who need more of it.

He said teens and adults “disrupt our sleep” with big and small screens, on TVs and smartphones. “We’ve got to get better sleep hygiene,” he said, “and set out the time we need to get that eight hours of sleep.”