A trip to Disneyland is supposed to be a dream come true for a child. But in December, “The Happiest Place on Earth” became the epicenter of a measles outbreak that has infected 67 people to date, including young children.  This latest outbreak has drawn attention to the fact that the anti-vaccination movement in the United States is putting people of all ages at risk of highly contagious diseases like measles, which had previously been eliminated here.

As a distracting and harmful debate about vaccines reaches new heights, even potential presidential candidates are weighing in, reducing what should be a scientific imperative to political fodder.

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Today, we must redirect this unfortunate noise into a bold reaffirmation of a legacy the U.S. has upheld for years: protecting the lives of millions of children by supporting immunization programs at home and around the world.

We know that vaccines are one of the most cost-effective ways to save lives and support development. We also know—and saw with searing clarity this fall with Ebola—that disease knows no borders. For these reasons, the US has a dual obligation. We must focus not only on urging the vaccinations necessary to protect our own children from infectious disease, but continue to do our part to ensure preventable diseases like measles are controlled or stomped out everywhere.

The US government has a long and continuing history of leadership in global immunization. As recently as 2012, it made a commitment to ensuring more equitable access to vaccines for all people when it signed the Global Vaccine Action Plan (GVAP) with 194 other countries. The US Department of Health & Human Services, US Department of Defense, and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) continue to play a pivotal role in developing new vaccines and providing countries worldwide with the technical assistance they need to conduct surveillance, introduce vaccines, and build capacity for vaccine development and delivery. And the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has supported vaccination—especially measles vaccination—for children around the world, achieving a staggering 71% reduction in measles deaths globally from 2000 to 2011.

Most recently, the US committed US$1 billion to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which combines donor funds and country co-financing to deliver vaccines to millions of children every year.  Joined with additional contributions, these new funds should enable Gavi to immunize 300 million more children and save up to 6 million more lives by 2020.

Together, our efforts are promoting a healthy future for millions of people, in every corner of the world. Vaccines are a powerful, lifesaving tool. They’ve made diseases like smallpox, polio, and—until recently –measles a distant memory for most people in the US.

But the current measles outbreak proves once again that the successes we have achieved in the US and abroad will take ongoing effort and commitment to sustain. The world we live in is increasingly complex and interdependent. To protect our gains, we must make a global commitment to the safe, continued, and expanded use of vaccines. 

Communities that still face debilitating diseases on a regular basis know the true stakes. At PATH, we see this time and again during vaccine introductions in our partner countries. There, mothers who have walked for miles line up out the door to have their children protected from meningitis, rotavirus, Japanese encephalitis, and other devastating health threats.

For these women and their communities, the danger of losing a child to one of these diseases is very real. So real, in fact, that many communities have demanded their governments improve access to lifesaving vaccines— and their governments have responded.

Every parent wants the best for their children, but now is not the time to be distracted by a divisive debate when we have a clear scientific and moral imperative to vaccinate against preventable diseases for the benefit of all.  That’s why we at PATH are committed to working with the US government and our partners around the globe to make sure every child has the opportunity to reach their full potential, no matter where they live.

Davis is president and CEO of PATH (www.path.org)