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‘We do not want to return to a time when parents had to worry their infant could die of meningitis’: Some kids still await routine vaccinations during COVID

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By Meera Jagannathan

A different kind of COVID-19 vaccine concern has emerged in recent months: Many kids aren’t getting their routine immunizations, potentially leaving them vulnerable to vaccine-preventable illnesses.

Some 16% of parents report that their kids haven’t gotten all of their pediatrician-advised vaccinations due to pandemic-related scheduling difficulties, according to a newly published Harris Poll of 1,013 U.S. adults conducted on behalf of Fast Company in late July.

And as school districts grapple with whether and how to reopen in the fall , 26% of parents said they would definitely pull their kids out of school should immunization rates there decline significantly. More than half (52%) said they would consider doing so, and 22% said they would allow their kids to keep going to school, according to the nationally representative Harris Poll.

Previous data support these findings: A May 15 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report charted a “a notable decrease” in orders for routine pediatric vaccinations during the period between Jan. 6 and April 19, compared to a similar timespan one year earlier. This decline, the CDC said, started the week after President Trump’s COVID-19 national-emergency declaration on March 13. 

One potential contributor to this drop might be parents’ concerns about possibly exposing their kids to the novel coronavirus during well-child visits, wrote CDC researcher Jeanne Santoli and her co-authors. “To the extent that this is the case, reminding parents of the vital need to protect their children against serious vaccine-preventable diseases, even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, is critical,” they wrote. 

As social-distancing measures ease up, they added, kids who haven’t been vaccinated will be more susceptible to diseases like measles.

“The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is a reminder of the importance of vaccination,” the authors wrote. “The identified declines in routine pediatric vaccine ordering and doses administered might indicate that U.S. children and their communities face increased risks for outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases.”

In response, American Academy of Pediatrics president Sally Goza released a statement calling the trend “incredibly worrisome.” She urged parents to schedule a vaccine catch-up or well-child visit for their children, and assured them such visits could be made safely.

“I remember treating children with these diseases as recently as the 1980s, and we do not want to return to a time when parents had to worry their infant could die of meningitis — especially when we have a vaccine to prevent it,” Goza said. “The COVID-19 pandemic is giving all of us a real-time education in what this vulnerability feels like. Fortunately, we have vaccines to protect children and teens against 16 different diseases.”

A subsequent CDC report published in May uncovered similar results in Michigan’s child vaccination coverage during the pandemic, finding that “vaccination coverage declined in all milestone age cohorts, except for birth-dose hepatitis B coverage, which is typically administered in the hospital setting.”

Meanwhile, a recent investigation by Scientific American , which sought data from every state health department and Washington, D.C., and obtained data from 34 agencies, found that vaccinations “declined starkly” across the country in the six weeks after the World Health Organization deemed the outbreak a pandemic.

Health officials in New York City, the onetime U.S. epicenter of the pandemic, told the outlet that compared to 2019, vaccine doses were down 63% two months after the city’s shutdown began.

Kids aren’t the only ones forgoing vaccines: One in 10 adults said scheduling problems had thwarted them from getting vaccinated against illnesses like influenza, tetanus and shingles, according to the Harris Poll. 

Public-health experts have stressed the importance of high flu-vaccine coverage , which they say will reduce flu-related mortality and help prevent health-care systems from becoming overwhelmed while both influenza viruses and SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, are circulating.

The Harris Poll also found a slight uptick in the share of parents who are against vaccines because of health concerns, which rose from 7% pre-pandemic to 9% today. As JAMA Pediatrics notes in an article geared toward patients, it’s important to get information from reliable sources and reject vaccine myths.

“The most widely known myth is a reported link between the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and autism. It came from a false study in the 1990s that was later retracted by the journal that initially published it,” the article’s authors note. “Since then, many research studies have shown no connection between autism and any vaccine.”

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