Alaska lawmakers approve vaccine program continuation

On Monday, state lawmakers voted to extend a state program that provides vaccines to Alaskans around the state.

The Alaska Vaccine Assessment Program is a self-funded, public-private partnership that supplies reduced-cost vaccines more than 100 health care providers around the state. It was launched in 2015 and today, according to the Division of Public Health, immunization rates are on the rise.

Dr. Lily Lou, Chief Medical Officer for the Department of Health and Social Services, said that’s important, because Alaska is “not the best” when it comes to immunization rates.

Testifying before the House Finance Committee April 30, Lou said she’s been concerned by recent outbreaks of vaccine-preventable illnesses in the Lower 48. The Washington State Department of Health reported 72 cases of measles in Clark and King County this year alone. Nationwide, health officials have confirmed at least 764 individual cases in 23 states — the largest number since 1994, according to the Center for Disease Control.

While Alaska has yet to report any cases, Lou says it’s not out of the question.

“Part of the concern is that there are communities where vaccine hesitancy is at much higher rates,” she said. “There’s a possibility that those are the places a vaccine-preventable disease could take hold and spread to the rest of the state.”

Lou said public health officials believe the vaccine assessment program, which makes vaccine access universal, has helped contribute to a noticeable rise in Alaska immunization rates. The rates for some vaccines have increased by more than 10 percentage points since 2015.

But the vaccine assessment program was originally scheduled to end in 2021. Senate Bill 37 — the proposal to extend it — passed the House by a 35-1 vote Monday. Wasilla Republican Rep. David Eastman cast the sole vote against it. The bill passed the Senate 19-0 in March.

Kirsten Swann is a producer and reporter for Alaska Public Media.

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