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Houston Chronicle: Immunization advocate honored as CDC 'champion'

By ANNETTE BAIRD | June 04, 2012

Originally published in the Houston Chronicle

The president of the upper Kirby-based nonprofit group The Immunization Partnership recently was recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for her success in increasing the immunization rate across the state.

Anna Dragsbaek was named this year's Childhood Immunization Champion for Texas by the CDC for implementing projects to boost immunization rates while analyzing immunization law and policies.

Immunization advocate honored as CDC 'champion'

Board member Gwen Emmett said Dragsbaek's strengths are advocacy, record keeping and management.

"She is a wealth of information and a visionary who is known nationally," Emmett said. "We are incredibly fortunate to have her at the partnership."

From 2004 to 2008, Dragsbaek ran the Houston-Harris County Immunization Registry, an online database consolidating immunization records from more than 400 providers. With more than 14 million records in the database, providers are more easily able to ensure children are current with vaccinations. She also was instrumental in strengthening 15 laws, including the requirement that students entering seventh grade have a booster for tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough) and the "Jamie Schanbaum and Nicolis Williams Act." Named for two students who contracted bacterial meningitis, the act requires all students under 30 enrolled in a Texas college have a meningitis booster or vaccine or opt out. The changes in the law went into effect in January.

"Without her we couldn't have gotten much done at all," said Greg Williams, who lobbied to expand meningitis vaccine requirements after his son Nicolis died of meningitis in 2011 while attending Texas A&M University.

Previously, the law required that only those students living in dorms have the vaccine. Schanbaum was a student at the University of Texas when she contracted meningitis and ended up losing six fingers and her legs below the knees.

Dragsbaek, 45, was drawn to public health following a three-year stint in Sierra Leone with the Peace Corps.

"For the first time in my life I was in an environment where there was a near-absence of public health care, and a cornerstone of that is immunizations," said Dragsbaek, who earned a degree in social work from Marquette University. "Being exposed to a man dying of tetanus, a light bulb went off and I understood how important the issue was."

While in law school at the University of Houston, Dragsbaek, a resident of Cypress, started working for Texas Children's Hospital as manager of the immunization program and put her legal background to use through advocacy and policy.

She joined The Immunization Partnership in 2008.

While Dragsbaek said much has been achieved on the vaccination front - the state of Texas has risen to 12th in the nation after being at the bottom in vaccination rates -she added that there is still much to do. Dragsbaek said the challenge is to continue to convince parents to have their children vaccinated when there is the perception that immunizations are dangerous or unnecessary.

"There's a lot of misinformation out there," she said. "I always tell parents if they're feeling unsure to speak to their doctor. It's really important to have that dialogue."

Annette Baird is a freelance writer who can be reached at anbaird@sbcglobal.net.

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