Alaska, once a leader in public health, could be again

The recent opinion article by Michael Carey regarding Alaskans response to polio in the 1950s prompted me to recall more recent Alaska experiences with vaccine preventable diseases. At one time, Alaska led the nation in childhood vaccination success, becoming the first state to eliminate the transmission of measles and rubella (German measles) in 1973-1974.

During the pipeline boom, the influx of workers and accompanying population growth resulted in diverting attention from public health and vaccinations. An outbreak of diphtheria in 1975 led to a statewide mass vaccination effort to provide diphtheria-tetanus vaccinations to all adults. Over a six-week period, more than 220,000 adults were vaccinated, and no further cases of diphtheria occurred for decades thereafter.

Soon after, an outbreak of meningococcal meningitis broke out. With assistance from the Centers for Disease Control, a newly licensed vaccine was used to control the outbreak. Then in 1976, cases of measles were identified in unvaccinated school children in Fairbanks and Anchorage. The existing vaccination requirements were not being enforced. Under Gov. Jay Hammond, a statewide vaccination campaign was launched in 1976 with a motto of “NO SHOTS, NO SCHOOL.” During the following months, more than 200,000 vaccinations were administered, and all but a handful of students were brought into compliance with vaccination requirements. The measles outbreak was ended.

Emerging technology resulted in the development and licensing of many new vaccines against hemophilus influenza type B, pertussis (whooping cough), hepatitis A, hepatitis B, chickenpox, shingles and pneumococcal pneumonia. All of these vaccines and others were embraced by Alaskans, and high levels of vaccination achieved with subsequent decline or elimination of these diseases. Few cases of vaccine preventable diseases occurred among Alaskans for decades.

These successes were not easily achieved. They resulted from a statewide commitment to public health from the entire population and leadership of Alaska’s governors, Legislatures, private health care providers, Native health corporations and leaders, as well as parents.

It is tragic today, to see that the current Alaska leadership has turned its back on science, public health, and duties to protect the health of Alaskans. The COVID-19 pandemic did not have to play out this way. In Alaska and the rest of the U.S., thousands have unnecessarily become seriously ill and have died from this preventable disease. Ignorant of history and of science, a new cult of leaders has politicized the pandemic and turned its back on the people of Alaska and the nation.

Alaskans should look back on the incredible past successes it achieved in preventing diseases through vaccinations. Alaska voters should throw out the current leaders who failed, and are continuing to fail, in their duties to protect Alaskans. Alaskans celebrate the historic serum run by the heroes who delivered diphtheria anti-toxin to Nome more than 100 years ago. Since the 1970s through the turn of the century, Alaska has been among the leaders in the nation in protecting its residents through vaccinations. Alaskans could remember the past and embrace again science and public health. The most effective protection from the COVID pandemic is to get vaccinated. It is not too late to act. Make it happen.


John P. Middaugh, M.D., was the Alaska State Epidemiologist, Alaska Division of Public Health from 1980 to 2003. He was an advocate for public health and for preventing illness and death from vaccine-preventable diseases.

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