As the COVID-19 virus has taken hold throughout the country, another health phenomenon has emerged: Childhood immunization rates have fallen. Compared with 2019, vaccinations decreased gradually in January and February before falling abruptly when a national emergency was declared in mid-March, recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show.
As social distancing requirements are relaxed, children who are not protected by vaccines will be more vulnerable to diseases such as measles, the CDC team concluded.
University of Florida Health pediatrician Cameron M. Rosenthal, M.D., a clinical assistant professor in the UF College of Medicine, said parents should try to stick to recommended vaccine schedules and go forward with well-child visits. Here, Rosenthal explains why that is important for children’s health.
Q: Federal data show vaccinations declining sharply after a national emergency was declared on March 16. In your experience, what is driving that phenomenon?
A: Since March, most communities across our country have enacted varying degrees of stay-at-home orders and encouraged social isolation. Schools have been closed and many businesses are having employees work remotely. As a result, fewer doctors’ offices have been open and many families are choosing to stay home as much as possible. Unfortunately, many parents and caregivers are canceling or delaying well-child doctor visits for their children and not staying up-to-date with recommended vaccines.
Q: Vaccination declines were less significant among children under age 2. Is that likely a result of prioritizing immunizations for the youngest children?
A: Many pediatricians, included UF Health physicians, are stressing to parents the importance of keeping up with immunization schedules for children. This is especially true for infants and toddlers, who receive most of their childhood vaccines within the first two years of life. While we believe that all vaccines are important for lifelong health and well-being, vaccines provided over the first months of a child’s life provide protections for diseases that could be life-threatening if contracted. Additionally, we have seen an increase in the incidence of some of these diseases such as measles over the past several years as more people hesitate to vaccinate their children.
Q: Should parents delay or postpone well-child visits or vaccinations due to COVID-19 concerns?
A: UF Health has made significant changes to our pediatric practices: enhancing social distancing, screening patients and employees, and increasing our routine cleaning and disinfecting practices. We strongly encourage families to continue to have their child seen for wellness visits and vaccines during the COVID pandemic. We will take precautions to limit your potential for exposure during your visit.
Q: Does delaying immunizations raise the risk of more vaccine-preventable diseases in a year or two?
A: Yes, there can be long-term detrimental effects from the drop in vaccination rates that we are seeing.
Q: As stay-at-home orders expire or are lifted, how urgent is it for parents to get their child’s vaccines back on track?
A: Parents should make it a priority to have their child complete any needed “catch up” vaccines as soon as possible to ensure that they are fully protected against these vaccine-preventable diseases.
Q: Measles was already making a comeback before COVID-19. How much does not having the measles vaccine raise a child’s risk of contracting the disease?
A: Measles is highly contagious. If an unvaccinated child is exposed to measles, they have up to a 90% chance of contracting the disease. While measles can have serious complications for anyone, children younger than age 5 are at more risk than older children. Complications from measles infection include pneumonia and encephalitis (brain swelling) that can result in permanent disability or death. Also, people who are fully immunized against measles — those who receive the two-dose series — are 97% protected against contracting measles if they are exposed to the virus.
Q: Are some vaccines timelier and more crucial than others, such as the first dose of the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella), or are they all equally important?
A: I think sticking to the vaccine schedules recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC is important. I don’t think we can prioritize some immunizations over others, as they all have significant clinical value.
Q: Why is it important to stick to vaccine schedules?
A: Keeping vaccination rates up in the community helps prevent disease outbreaks. We have seen this occur in the United States in areas that have higher rates of vaccine refusal or exemptions. Not vaccinating your child can put both your child and the community at risk for a preventable disease. In addition, an unvaccinated child is more likely to need to go to a clinic or hospital when sick, which could increase their risk of being exposed to COVID-19. Unvaccinated children who get sick may need invasive tests to ensure that a deadly, vaccine-preventable disease is not the cause of their illness.