jc_watts.jpgATLANTA — A working group of prominent leaders is calling on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to expand the recommendations for the bacterial meningitis vaccine to include infants as young as six months old at its upcoming meeting.

Former Congressmen J.C. Watts Jr., and Ron Dellums along with National Medical Association President Dr. Michael A. LeNoir are leading a newly formed Health Disparities Working Group.

“We are excited about the strength of the working group and our first project which is focused on advocating for an expanded vaccinations recommendation that would help to ensure low-income and minority communities are not disadvantaged in access to quality medical care,” said Dr. LeNoir.

“We are concerned about the ‘vaccine gap’ in this country, which allows more affluent communities to receive important immunizations that are largely inaccessible to low-income and minority communities, and contributes to the growing health disparities,” Watts said. “We believe adding the

bacterial meningitis vaccine to the recommended list for infants will help ensure that low-income and minority communities that rely on federal and state vaccination programs will have access to this life-saving medication,” added Dellums.

Current working group members include Millicent Gorham, executive director for the national office of the National Black Nurses Association, Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and The Leadership Conference Education Fund, Dr. Gary Puckrein, president and CEO of the National Minority Quality Forum, Daraka Satcher, president of the Satcher Group and Hilary Shelton, executive director of Government Affairs for the NAACP.

The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices was scheduled to meet on Oct. 23, to consider recommending the bacterial meningitis vaccine for children as young as six months old. Adding the vaccine to the routine immunization schedule will ensure that it will be included in the federal Vaccines for Children program, which provides about 82 million vaccines to 40 million low-income children each year.

The recommendation will also improve vaccine coverage among private insurers and devote resources to education about the disease.

“A failure by ACIP to recommend the bacterial meningitis vaccine for children will perpetuate the disproportionately high rates of amenable morbidity and mortality associated with this disease in underserved populations throughout the country. We urge ACIP to be decisive and proactive in protecting the health and futures of all of America’s children,” said Dr. Puckrein.

 Bacterial meningitis, while rare, is a deadly disease that kills approximately 500 people each year. The first symptoms are often similar to a cold or flu, but in hours the bacteria can attack the body, leaving those who survive with lost limbs, learning disabilities and hearing loss. The African-American community is at greater risk for bacterial meningitis because many low-income black families face key risk factors, including over-crowding, underlying illnesses and tobacco use.

One of the working group’s projects is to raise awareness about the growing disparity in health for low-income and minority families in the United States, which the National Institute of Health recently labeled as one of the nation’s greatest challenges.

A recent CDC report found large racial, ethnic and income disparities in preventable hospitalizations, where blacks experience a rate more than double that of whites. Preventable incidents account for more than 1 million hospitalizations each year, at a cost of more than $6.7 billion annually.