As much of the nation shut down in March and April to try to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus, many thousands of parents also canceled or rescheduled pediatrician appointments for their young children, certainly an understandable move at the time.
But those cancellations could have a very dangerous and lasting effect, especially if parents don’t reschedule soon. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed childhood vaccination rates plummeted by about 80% in those two months. It’s a statistic especially concerning to Dr. Elizabeth Mack, a pediatric critical care specialist at the Medical University of South Carolina who fears she might have to treat diseases not seen in decades.
“The concern is we’ll have outbreaks of completely preventable diseases,” she says. “Things that have been eradicated could eventually reappear, and when vaccination rates are that low, we don’t have the luxury of herd immunity anymore.”
While many parents have returned to their pediatrician’s office since the economy began to reopen, there are no new figures to clarify how much the vaccination gap has been closed. There are also no figures to show whether that gap is better or worse in South Carolina than the nation as a whole. Fortunately, the United States has not seen a recent outbreak of any of these preventable diseases — at least not so far.
But the global picture is certainly worse. The New York Times recently reported that other countries’ falling vaccination rates have led to new illnesses, from diphtheria in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal to cholera in five countries to a mutated strain of poliovirus in more than 30 countries. Measles cases are flaring up from Brazil to Nigeria to Bangladesh.
Declining vaccination rates already were a growing concern before the coronavirus headed our way: South Carolina saw its first adult mumps outbreak in decades last year, and the College of Charleston had at least 56 cases. While South Carolina’s public schools require children to have certain vaccinations, it allows some to opt out for religious reasons — and more parents have been doing just that. The idea that modern vaccines could cause autism has been thoroughly discredited everywhere but on the internet, where it’s easy to find foolish, even lethally foolish, stuff.
Fortunately, this is one problem parents can solve — if enough of them get their children caught up.
Vaccines are safe, and the diseases they work against pose as serious a threat to children’s health as the coronavirus does. Importantly, some children cannot get vaccinated because they have certain health conditions, and they rely on others to do so — and create what’s known as herd immunity.
“Kids with cancer or immune deficiency or auto-immune diseases or kids on suppressants, if they get one of these diseases, it often doesn’t end well,” Dr. Mack says. “They rely on herd immunity, and when that doesn’t exist, we put the most vulnerable people at risk.”
The damage that COVID-19 is doing to our health and economy is bad enough. Compounding it by letting it open the door to measles and whooping cough and other preventable illnesses would be even worse — especially for our children.