A recent survey serves as a small snapshot of a national problem that some fear may be exacerbated in the fall as children return to school for in-person instruction.
The national survey, released Wednesday and conducted by Orlando Health, found the vast majority of parents believe vaccines are the best way to protect their children from infectious diseases, but two-thirds are still nervous to take their kids to their pediatrician’s office due to COVID-19.
While only about 700 of the 2,000 respondents were parents of children under 18, pediatricians say this is reflective of a trend they’re seeing in their offices where they’ve seen a decrease in childhood vaccinations since the pandemic began.
Dr. Mary Carol Burkhardt, director of primary care of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, said she’s seen a drastic decline in vaccinations against all diseases since March and has yet to recover that volume of patients. She’s worried this could lead to an outbreak of vaccine-preventable diseases like measles or pertussis, also known as whooping cough.
“All it will take is a case of measles entering our community and we will see loss of life that is completely and totally unnecessary,” said Dr. Alix Casler, a pediatrician and chair of the Department of Pediatrics for Orland Health Physician Associates. “It can be hard for people to grasp just how important universal vaccinations are because they’ve never seen how devastating these diseases can be.” Dr. Margot Savoy, associate professor and department chair of family and community medicine at Temple University’s Lewis Katz School of Medicine in Philadelphia, said measles can also be dangerous because they tend not to appear one case at a time, but instead pop up in clusters with multiple people in one pocket getting sick.
“We’ve had more cases of measles in the last two years than what we’ve had in a decade,” she said. “And it seems like it’s creeping up.” Experts argue missed vaccinations are not only important to the patients themselves but also adults and other children who hadn’t received vaccinations, including children under the age of one who are not yet old enough to receive their first dose of the measles vaccine. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention list of vaccine schedules can be found here.) The only reason we have herd immunity against so many diseases is because upwards of 90% to 95% of children are vaccinated, Casler said, but no one will be presumed safe once the country drops below that level.
“Families have been on the path to have fewer and fewer vaccinations of children, but during this crisis … the amount of vaccinations have been plummeting,” said Dr. Rahul Gupta, chief medical officer at the March of Dimes and former health commissioner of West Virginia. “There’s no doubt that there will be a resurgence of other diseases.”
While it’s not certain if the new school year will bring about a new outbreak, doctors say it’s not out the realm of possibilities.
Before measles, Savoy said she’s most worried about influenza. As more schools push back start dates, parents feel less pressure to vaccinate their children for the flu.
“That makes me incredibly nervous because influenza kills more children than we give it credit for,” she said. “We forget how deadly influenza can be for children.”