Childhood vaccination rates drop dangerously low
Comment on this story
More than 250,000 children entering kindergarten in the fall of 2021 may be at risk for measles, one of the most infectious pathogens on the planet, because they did not get the vaccinations needed to enroll in school, according to data federal health published on Thursday.
Only about 93 percent of U.S. kindergartners were vaccinated against the potentially fatal disease with the required two doses — the second year in a row that measles and rubella coverage (MMR) fell below the 95 percent level needed to prevent the spread of the virus in community. The last time American kindergarteners had that protection was during the 2019-2020 school year, before the pandemic began.
The report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also shows continued declines in immunization rates for three other childhood vaccines that prevent diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTaP), polio, and chickenpox among kindergartners in 2021.
The latest data underscore concerns that growing parental resistance to routine childhood immunizations is fueling a resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases, such as recent measles outbreaks in Minnesota and Columbus, Ohio, that sickened more than 100 children last year. past. The pandemic has magnified the issue due to the politicization of coronavirus vaccines, and the ongoing effects of school closures and fewer children going to the doctor for immunization rates.
“We know that measles, mumps and rubella vaccination coverage for kindergarten children is the lowest it has been in more than a decade … and that is something to be concerned about,” Georgina told a news conference Peacock, CDC director of immunization services.
While a two-percentage-point drop in measles vaccination rates may seem insignificant, health officials and experts warn that even the smallest drop allows the virus to spread faster, causing outbreaks in groups of unvaccinated children. Measles is so contagious that people who may not know they are exposed can become infected and spread the virus to family members or other contacts before they develop symptoms.
As well as being potentially deadly, the measles virus weakens the immune system and makes a child more vulnerable to other illnesses such as pneumonia and diarrhea – an effect that lasts for months after the body clears the measles infection.
Sean O’Leary, a pediatric infectious disease doctor, called recent outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases like measles and polio “alarming.” Childhood vaccination is essential because it “equips children’s immune systems to recognize and resist disease so they can develop and live healthy lives into adulthood,” he told the conference.
O’Leary, who cares for hospitalized children, said many of these can be prevented with “the simple and safe step of keeping your child up to date on recommended vaccines.”
Federal data show nine states and the District of Columbia with vaccination coverage among children below 90 percent, including Ohio and Minnesota. That’s the most states to fall below that level in data released by the CDC, which dates back to 2009-2010. New York, Nebraska, North Carolina and Tennessee are among 12 states with MMR vaccination rates above 95 percent.
Children’s coverage of all four childhood vaccines — to prevent measles, diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTaP), polio and chickenpox — was about 93 percent nationwide in the 2021-2022 school year, up from 94 percent in 2020-2021 and 95 percent in 2019-2020.
The decline means more than 275,000 gardens may not be fully protected from these diseases, according to the CDC.
Measles is an “imminent threat” globally, WHO and CDC warn
Several factors are behind the decline. Pandemic-related disruptions in the health care system delayed pediatric checkups. Partly as a result, providers have ordered fewer doses from the federal program that provides vaccines for half of all American children. In some cases, schools also lack the staff to ensure that parents submit health documentation on time.
And concerns over the value of the coronavirus vaccine are increasingly spreading to routine immunizations.
“We’ve seen some vaccine hesitancy during the pandemic that’s mostly related, I think, to the Covid vaccine. And that in some cases may translate into routine vaccinations,” said the CDC’s Peacock. “And that’s something we’re looking at closely.”
Preventable diseases spread quickly, she warned, pointing to recent measles outbreaks in Ohio and Minnesota.
The CDC recommends that children receive two doses of the MMR vaccine, with the first dose at 12 to 15 months and the second dose between 4 and 6 years of age. One dose of the vaccine is about 93 percent effective in preventing measles; two doses are about 97 percent effective.
In the Columbus outbreak, most of the 83 infected children were old enough to receive the vaccines, but their parents chose not to, officials said, resulting in the nation’s largest outbreak of the highly infectious pathogen in 2022. If no new cases are reported by Jan. 30, authorities will likely declare the outbreak over, said Myles Bell, a spokesman for the Columbus health department.
Minnesota reported 22 cases of measles between June and November last year, but they occurred in several clusters. This pattern was more worrisome than a major outbreak, such as the one the state experienced in 2017.
The groups “remained contained as small campfires, but each had the potential to expand drastically into a wildfire that could have more severe consequences,” said Doug Schultz, a spokesman for the Minnesota health department. Vaccine hesitancy was a contributing factor in both outbreaks, health officials have said.
Peacock and O’Leary also pointed to the case of paralytic polio in a New York man this summer that raised concerns that low childhood immunization rates and increased vaccine misinformation could result in a resurgence of the disease decades after vaccination had eliminated it in the United States.
“I think all of this is evidence that we have pockets in the United States where we have low vaccine coverage among children … and also in these particular communities a need to increase vaccination rates,” Peacock said in an interview.
The CDC this week launched an initiative to bring routine immunizations for adults and children back on schedule. Officials are giving health care providers more information and strategies to help them talk about vaccines and work more intensively with community groups in areas where vaccination rates are very low.
Rupali Limaye, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University who has studied vaccine hesitancy, said the overall decline in childhood immunization rates is troubling, and the decline in measles vaccination in particular is dangerously low and “quite boring”.
She has spoken to hundreds of parents, churches and other community groups in the past three years about the coronavirus vaccine. Many people may not have had problems with the routine immunization schedule before the pandemic, she said. But confusing messages about the need for children to get the coronavirus vaccine “has affected their decision-making about these routine immunizations,” Limaye said.
Immunization advocates say it is difficult to increase vaccination rates without a clearer understanding of why they have fallen.
“Most recent polls show that parents still overwhelmingly support childhood vaccines, so is this a question of awareness?” asked Erica DeWald, director of strategic communications at Vaccinate Your Family, an immunization advocacy group. “Or do we need to identify access issues that arose as a result of the pandemic? We must continue to collaborate with community partners to identify and address fundamental barriers to vaccination.”
Dan Keating contributed to this report.