Defending against disease: Motivated by personal tragedy, attorney works to improve vaccination rates in Michigan

As Michigan health officials launched the I Vaccinate campaign, designed to increase statewide vaccination rates among children and adolescents, Pepper Hamilton LLP partner Sean P. McNally stood front and center at a March 20 event for a very personal reason.

McNally represented the Franny Strong Foundation, which he and his wife Veronica founded after their 12-week-old daughter Francesca died of pertussis, also known as whooping cough, in 2012. The foundation promotes pertussis awareness and prevention through ongoing research and education for the public and health care professionals. To the McNallys, the Franny Strong Foundation is a tribute to their daughter’s too-brief life, and an effort to prevent other parents from experiencing a similar heartache.

An earlier bout of the RSV virus, which causes cold-like symptoms, meant that when she contracted pertussis, Francesca had not yet begun receiving the series of pertussis vaccinations recommended for children her age. When Francesca started to show symptoms that included a persistent cough, the McNallys sought medical attention from their pediatrician and in the emergency department several times, but by the time they received a pertussis diagnosis, Francesca’s condition was rapidly deteriorating. She passed away three days after being admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit at the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan, as the swelling caused by pertussis overwhelmed her lungs and airway.

“We had an extraordinary personal tragedy that motivated my wife and I to start the Franny Strong Foundation five years ago, and to become involved in numerous public awareness campaigns involving
vaccinations,” McNally said. “We have worked for four years to develop the creative platform for I Vaccinate, while on a parallel track, we’ve worked with consultants and lobbyists to secure $2 million in public funding for the delivery of the program in Michigan.”

According to an MLive article on the I Vaccinate kick-off event, Michigan has one of the country’s lowest immunization rates, ranking 43rd out of 50 states in the 2015 National Immunization Survey for children ages 19 to 35 months. Michigan Care Improvement Registry data shows that 54 percent of children in that age group, and only 29 percent of 13 to 18-year-olds, are up-to-date on vaccinations. This data, along with a number of chickenpox outbreaks in 2016 and a rise in whooping cough cases, prompted state health officials to partner with the Franny Strong Foundation and other health care organizations to create the I Vaccinate campaign to try to improve vaccination rates.

“There are two reasons for Michigan’s low vaccination rates: we don’t have a strong legislative mandate that limits vaccine opt-outs for schoolchildren [for religious or philosophical reasons], and there’s been a lack of attention to the issue from the medical community and local health departments,” McNally said. “One of the motivators behind the campaign is the fact that we were in a similar position in Michigan in the late 1980s and early 1990s. There was a public awareness campaign – smaller than this one – that took Michigan from the bottom 10 states in vaccination rates to the top 10. We’ve slipped back down the ladder since then, but we hope this campaign will take us from the bottom 10 to the top 10 once again.”

There is also a general lack of awareness among adults about the need to be re-vaccinated for a number of diseases. Sean points out that while there’s been a strong and successful emphasis on the need for adults to receive an annual flu shot, many people don’t realize that they should receive a Tdap booster every 10 years. The Tdap vaccination covers tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis, and is strongly recommended for adults who have or care for young children. “Adults need to stay up-to-date on pertussis vaccinations, as they are the biggest sources of contamination for infants and young children,” McNally said.

The I Vaccinate campaign is multifaceted, focusing on TV ads, the program’s website and social media, and other forms of public awareness, such as billboards and radio. I Vaccinate has an active Facebook page where the campaign’s latest TV spots are posted, along with other information about the campaign.

“It’s a one-of-a-kind program in the country, developed in coordination with the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Michigan Department of Health, the Michigan Health and Hospital Association and a few other partners to create a platform of reliable, objective medical information about vaccines,” McNally said. “It’s also heavily coordinated with primary care physicians and pediatricians – we’ve been getting I Vaccinate materials out to them so that they’re ready to have discussions with their patients about vaccines and to answer patients’ questions.”

One of the goals of the public/private I Vaccinate partnership is to develop it as a turn-key program that could be implemented in other states. This is also a focus for the Franny Strong Foundation, which the McNallys run in addition to his role as a partner in Pepper Hamilton’s Southfield office, and her role as a clinical professor and director of the Trial Practice Institute at the Michigan State University College of Law.
“Our goal is to improve vaccination rates, to put Michigan back into the top 10 nationally through campaigns like I Vaccinate, to work on funding the program for next year, and then to look for opportunities to entice other states to participate and license the program to them,” McNally said.

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