Deborah L. Wexler, MD
Executive Director Emerita
After more than three decades spent saving countless lives, Immunize.org’s beloved founder and executive director emerita, Deborah L. Wexler, MD, retired in June 2021.
Dr. Wexler’s life is the story of one extraordinary and compassionate vision for a healthier world. Though the names of those who invent vaccines are widely recognized, we often fail to sufficiently appreciate those extraordinary people, like Deborah, who help the world realize the full benefit of vaccination.
A Passion for Public Health from the Start
Deborah’s focus on community health began in the 1980s during her family practice residency at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Later, as a family physician in Saint Paul, Minnesota, she treated many Hmong patients affected by hepatitis B. She quickly attributed the cause to low vaccination rates among the Southeast Asian refugee population and over time grew more and more concerned.
She recognized that without vaccination, her patients were not only at higher risk for hepatitis B, but for all vaccine-preventable diseases.
When measles became a national public health crisis in 1990 and claimed the lives of three local—unvaccinated—Hmong children, Deborah’s response was exceptional and innovative.
And her life would never be the same. Deborah gave up her medical practice and devoted her career to increasing immunization rates and enhancing the delivery of safe and effective vaccination services.
Forging Collaboration through Shared Passion
Deborah understood that reaching out to others who share your passion can spark powerfully contagious collaborations.
She organized a local group of healthcare professionals and advocates. Working out of donated space at the Saint Paul Health Department, they began providing vaccination services and immunization education at clinics throughout Saint Paul.
It was still the early 1990s when Deborah’s budding coalition published and mailed out the first issue of The Hepatitis B Coalition News to some 40 doctors and nurses.
The Early Years
Deborah was just getting started. In 1993, she secured startup funding to open a small office, expand the distribution of the newsletter, and found the Immunization Action Coalition (IAC) with a mission dedicated to raising immunization rates across the nation.
In those early years, Deborah’s children created some of IAC’s cheerful graphics. As her staff grew, Deborah extended the warmth of family to her entire team, celebrating every birthday and delighting in annual IAC dinner gatherings that included spouses, partners, and children.
Combining her gracious personal warmth with an unflagging commitment to medical excellence, Deborah built a nationwide team of highly respected, deeply loyal, and passionately motivated immunization experts.
Building a National Treasure of Immunization Information and Education
Over the next 28 years, IAC became recognized as a premier provider of child, teen, and adult immunization information for healthcare professionals and their patients. During that time, IAC worked closely with CDC to support, promote, and enhance the agency’s materials and services.
In 2021, IAC became Immunize.org. Today, Immunize.org’s multiple websites present 2,000-plus web pages receiving 25,000-plus visits per day and offer hundreds of free immunization patient handouts and staff educational materials. Website visitors download more than 3.5 million ready-to-print copies of IAC materials annually.
A Prolific Publisher
“Never a dull moment” is one of Deborah’s favorite expressions, but it does not begin to explain how she found enough moments for her many accomplishments, including overseeing multiple publications. Her commitment to high-quality publications is a widely appreciated and noted aspect of her legacy at IAC .
In addition to supervising IAC’s extensive website resources, Deborah served as executive editor of three immensely popular IAC publications, Vaccinate Adults, Vaccinate Women, and Needle Tips. Written for pediatric healthcare professionals, more than 4.25 million copies of Needle Tips were distributed to pediatricians, family physicians, and pediatric nurse practitioners nationwide, as well as to local and state health departments.
Deborah served as the executive editor of IAC Express (now IZ Express) from its launch through to her retirement. The free weekly email news service currently informs more than 54,000 subscribers.
Another highly valued feature publication developed by Deborah, Ask the Experts, is now an online repository of more than 1,200 frequently updated questions and answers addressing the clinical dilemmas and common questions of immunization providers on the front lines.
Deborah’s commitment to providing practical information for healthcare professionals is also evident in Technically Speaking, her monthly column featured, until her retirement, in Vaccine Update for Healthcare Professionals, the website and e-newsletter from the Vaccine Education Center (VEC) at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). She also supported longtime friend and ally Dr. Paul Offit as a member of the VEC’s advisory board.
Deborah’s commitment to patient education also led to the development of IAC’s library of translations of Vaccine Information Statements (VISs) in more than 45 languages, allowing millions of vaccine recipients to have access to vaccine information in their preferred language. This library is the nation’s central repository for translations of federally required vaccination documents.
Public Promotion of Immunization Education
Under Deborah’s direction, IAC authored multiple handout materials specifically aimed at encouraging parents to immunize their children. Deborah also developed the Unprotected People Stories, an original collection of personal stories about people who have suffered or died from vaccine-preventable diseases. These heartfelt accounts are particularly effective in reminding vaccine-hesitant families of the value of vaccines.
Standing Orders Guidance: From Measles Epidemic to the COVID-19 Pandemic
During the 1990s measles epidemic, Deborah developed standing orders documents for her medical practice so that nurses could provide vaccination services on their own, without a physician being present.
She expanded her standing orders initiative through IAC. Immunize.org maintains current standing orders for routinely recommended vaccines. Notably, IAC’s standing orders for managing medical vaccination emergencies were an invaluable tool in assisting pandemic COVID-19 vaccination efforts.
A Lifetime of National Vaccine Policy Advocacy
Deborah took an active role in developing and supporting national vaccine policies and strategies. She served as a consultant to the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) and National Immunization Conferences (NIC).
She was the founding chair of the National Viral Hepatitis Roundtable, co-chair of the Adult Vaccine Policy Group, and member of the Childhood Vaccine Policy Group, the 317 Coalition steering committee, and other national immunization groups.
She was an executive committee member for the National Influenza Vaccine Summit, which, with IAC support, has since evolved into the National Adult and Influenza Immunization Summit, a public-private coalition administered by Immunize.org
Recognizing the untapped leadership skills of passionate pro-vaccine mom Karen Ernst during a fortuitous meeting at an immunization coalition event in New Orleans, Deborah recruited her to lead Voices for Vaccines, a national parent organization now providing a strong voice supporting the value of vaccines.
Deborah’s commitment to establishing partnerships among immunization coalitions led to the formation of the National Network of Immunization Coalitions (an Immunize.org website) providing a forum for coalition leaders across the country to collaborate and share the best methods for improving immunizations within their respective communities.
Even amid all these activities, Deborah never forgot the hepatitis B issues for Hmong patients. She and other advocates conducted a successful 10-year national effort to encourage ACIP to strengthen its hepatitis B birth dose recommendation and ensure that every newborn receives the hepatitis B vaccine prior to discharge from the hospital.
Today, the Hepatitis B Birth Dose Honor Roll Deborah founded counts more than 500 hospitals and birthing centers among its honorees, recognizing them for consistently providing the birth dose of the hepatitis B vaccine to more than 90% of the babies born each year in these facilities. Her honor roll concept has grown to encompass similar recognition for required influenza vaccination of healthcare personnel and recommended or required meningitis B vaccination in colleges and universities.
National Awards and Recognition
Deborah’s selfless commitment to public health has been acknowledged with numerous awards. Among them, CDC recognized her work with its prestigious Partners in Public Health Award for efforts “instrumental in achieving high levels of routine infant hepatitis B immunization.”
She received the Immunization Champion Award from Every Child By Two (now known as Vaccinate Your Family), the national immunization advocacy organization founded by former first lady Rosalynn Carter and Arkansas’ former first lady Betty Bumpers.
The American Pharmacists Association presented her with their Friend of Pharmacy Immunization Leadership Award.
In February 2020, the syndicated public television show Visionaries selected IAC as the subject of one of its documentaries highlighting nonprofit organizations working to make a positive difference in the world. Hosted by Sam Waterston, the film showcases Deborah’s lifelong commitment to vaccination through her leadership of IAC’s extraordinary team of national experts.
In September 2022, she was honored with special recognition for lifetime achievement at the first National Conference for Immunization Coalitions and Partnerships (NCICP) held after the emergence of COVID-19.
A Life-Affirming Legacy
Through her passion for public health, partnerships, and coalitions, Deborah has championed the front-line nurses, doctors, and pharmacists responsible for immunization, helping them reach more people of all ages with these lifesaving interventions.