August is National Immunization Awareness Month, a good time to remind people of all ages of the importance of staying up-to-date on their immunizations. But it is not enough to give the reminder. We must be sure everyone has convenient access to vaccines. That is why I believe we need to start the conversation about changing the law during the 2015 legislative session to allow pharmacists to provide more vaccines.
Florida currently allows pharmacists to administer the seasonal flu, pneumonia and shingles vaccines. But we need to go much further and permit pharmacists to administer all vaccines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Children, teenagers, adults and seniors need vaccinations. Currently, there are gaps in the rates of coverage where people are not properly vaccinated. For example, the CDC describes vaccination coverage levels among adults as “unacceptably low.” In 2011, only 62 percent of seniors were vaccinated against pneumonia; only 54–65 percent of adults had received a tetanus vaccine in the last 10 years; and only about 16 percent of adults over age 60 had received a vaccine against shingles.
When immunization rates are low, the entire community is at risk for disease outbreaks. A measles outbreak in Ohio this year has been traced to unvaccinated residents who visited the Philippines and brought the virus back with them. And researchers have found that low vaccination rates in some communities were a factor in the 2010 whooping cough (pertussis) outbreak in California.
Allowing people to get more vaccinations from their pharmacists will help us reach more people who are not currently being vaccinated. In fact, the CDC suggests increased access to vaccination services in “complementary settings,” including pharmacies, is an important component of a successful vaccination program.
Expanding pharmacist-provided vaccines just makes sense. I am an emergency medicine physician who strongly believes physicians and pharmacists must work together to meet the needs of today’s patients. Florida, like many other states, has too few doctors to serve the number of people who live here. The shortages are especially acute in poor and low-income areas, and are expected to get worse. About 15 percent of Floridians live in medically underserved areas with limited access to doctors. By contrast, there are more than 2,800 pharmacies scattered in urban, rural and suburban locations throughout the state, offering easy access to vaccines and other preventive health services close to home.
When a pharmacist gives the vaccine, no appointment is required and families can visit at a time that is convenient for them. Also, because pharmacies are located in nearly every community, they are able to reach diverse and underserved patients who might not otherwise have access to vaccines. Like physicians, pharmacists are respected healthcare providers who can help encourage patients to stay up-to-date on their vaccines. They have proven to be great partners to physicians in increasing vaccination rates throughout the country.
For all these reasons, it is important for Florida to join the 44 other states that allow pharmacists to administer any recommended vaccine. Let’s work together to enact the necessary legislation during the 2015 session.
Representative Dr. Cary Pigman, is an emergency medicine physician and represents Glades, Highlands, Okeechobee and part of St. Lucie counties in the Florida House of Representatives.