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Distinguished Service Medal: William L. Atkinson
CAPT William L. Atkinson

Nomination of CAPT William L. Atkinson for the USPHS Distinguished Service Medal

On the occasion of his Public Health Service (PHS) retirement, CAPT William Atkinson is nominated for the USPHS Distinguished Service Medal in recognition of his extraordinary leadership critical to advancing national vaccine policy, improving vaccination coverage, and reducing morbidity and mortality related to vaccine preventable diseases (VPDs). This award covers work from 1995 through 2012; there is no overlap with previous awards except as noted below. Prior to 1995, CAPT Atkinson’s 25-year USPHS career also included assignments at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a CDC Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer (1983-85), as CDC’s lead measles epidemiologist, and as a health educator (1989-1994).
The US immunization program is one of the top public health successes. Thousands of deaths a year are prevented in children and adults due to the vaccines given throughout the lifespan. CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) sets standards of care for the PHS and the nation through its immunization recommendations for prevention and control of VPDs. These recommendations are complex and can change rapidly for many reasons including epidemics, outbreaks, other public health emergencies, vaccine shortages, new product licensures, or safety concerns. Educating clinicians and public health practitioners on the constantly evolving recommendations has been a critical component of the enormous success of the US immunization program.
Since 1995, CAPT Atkinson has almost singlehandedly raised the standards and approach towards vaccine education to new heights as the leader of the CDC Immunization Education Team. CAPT Atkinson has led ACIP policy development for several vaccines, and made major contributions to others. Additionally, he has been the national leader in educating providers and public health practitioners on current vaccination policy and vaccine safety. Because of his persistent, innovative, and invaluable efforts, CAPT Atkinson has become the public face of CDC’s immunization program.
Accomplishments/Impacts - Over the last 17 years, CAPT Atkinson has:
Advanced National Immunization Policy
CAPT Atkinson has provided critical insight to ACIP vaccine policy. During this time period, ACIP published at least 105 recommendations, as eight vaccines were added to the routine childhood/adolescent schedule, and two to the adult schedule. CAPT Atkinson directly impacted the development of policy of eleven of these vaccines. He authored or co-authored sixteen annual childhood immunization schedules (1995-2010), three ACIP General Recommendations on Immunization (2002, 2006, 2011), and one compilation of ACIP recommendations for Immunization of Health Care Personnel (HCP- 2011).
Impact: The childhood immunization schedule directs immunization practices for all children in the United States. CAPT Atkinson’s leadership has contributed to the increase in combined childhood immunization coverage for eight VPDs from 55.1% to 74.9% from 1995 through 2010, representing an increase of 800,000 additional children who are up to date. These VPDs include Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), measles, varicella (chickenpox), hepatitis B, diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, and polio. For one birth cohort of four million children over a lifetime, immunizing children on schedule is estimated to prevent 42,000 deaths and 20 million cases of disease. The General Recommendations have been cited by 194 other publications since 2002.
Led Development of the Key U.S. Public Health Immunization Textbook
CAPT Atkinson identified a need among many public health professionals for a succinct, accessible VPD and vaccine text. He created and was lead author of the Epidemiology and Prevention of Vaccine Preventable Diseases textbook and has led its publication through 12 editions. Known as “the Pink Book,” it summarizes the most commonly used, current ACIP recommendations, thus increasing those recommendations’ accessibility and facilitating implementation. The 324-page reference is available on CDC’s website, and in hard copy through the Public Health Foundation (PHF). CAPT Atkinson conceived and developed the PHF partnership to distribute the Pink Book more widely. He was included in a Unit Commendation in 1999 for one revision of this major reference.
Impact: The Pink Book is the primary immunization reference used by public health personnel in the United States. It has been accessed on CDC’s website an average of 164,575 times annually between 2007 and 2011 and over 323,000 hard copies have been distributed. The Pink Book has become textbook primary reference source for thousands of providers who are critical to the success of the immunization program.
Created State of the Art Immunization Education Materials
CAPT Atkinson created a set of standard lectures for clinicians and public health providers on VPDs, vaccines, ACIP recommendations, and vaccination practices. Since 1995, these lectures have been given across the country. He also developed the concept of Immunization Update presentations, implemented by him and the CDC Immunization Education Team since 1995 in educating health care personnel about VPDs and current ACIP recommendations.
Impact: CAPT Atkinson presented immunization information at 199 meetings between 2004 and 2011, to an estimated 46,343 persons and his team has presented at 441 meetings between 2004 and 2011 to an estimated 137,000 persons. Each year, the meetings were held in two territories and a range of 27–38 states. CAPT Atkinson’s ability to engage providers to understand the importance of vaccines is unparalleled and demonstrated by the packed rooms every time he spoke.
Implemented Novel Methods for Provider Education
CAPT Atkinson initiated CDC’s use of television (TV) broadcasting for distance learning immunization education. He adapted the standard lectures cited above for TV. He also developed and led annual Immunization Update broadcasts and special immunization topics’ broadcasts. These broadcasts have evolved from live satellite TV programs to recorded sessions accessible in multiple formats.
Impact: Since 2001, 137,384 medical professionals, including physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and health educators, registered for CE credit for the standard program; 55,754 registered for the Immunization Update programs; and 35,607 registered for the special programs. These broadcasts are widely viewed as a critical way to communicate with providers about current immunization topics.
CAPT Atkinson’s leadership during his USPHS career, and particularly since 1995, has been critical to CDC’s development and implementation of immunization policy and to its creation of powerful, wide-reaching immunization educational products. He has enabled and inspired countless public health staff and health care providers to improve the nation’s public health through vaccination. In recognition of his exemplary leadership and achievements, CAPT Atkinson is highly deserving of the USPHS Distinguished Service Medal.
Source: Courtesy of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
This page was reviewed on March 11, 2013
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