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Zirpoli: Amid pandemic, failure to get childhood vaccinations causing another health crisis

With all the talk about a potential COVID-19 vaccine, one has to wonder if Americans will be as casual about accepting it as they are about the flu and other vaccinations. Only about half of the American population receive the flu vaccine each year and the number of American parents who do not get their young children vaccinated is alarming.

An article in The New York Times by Jan Hoffman outlines the additional challenges of getting children vaccinated during the current COVID-19 outbreak. With parents avoiding doctor offices and with many health care clinics limiting operational hours or being closed, children are going without their vaccinations “putting millions of children at risk for measles, whooping cough, and other life-threatening illnesses.”

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As stated by Dr. Sean O’Leary of the American Academy of Pediatrics, “The last thing we want as the collateral damage of COVID-19 are outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, which we will almost certainly see if there continues to be a drop” in American children getting vaccinated.

The challenge of getting American children vaccinated was already increasing before the COVID-19 outbreak. Now it has become urgent.

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Some studies looking at pediatric electronic health records during the current COVID-19 crisis have found that “the administration of measles, mumps, and rubella shots have dropped by 50 percent; diphtheria and whooping cough shots by 42 percent; and HPV vaccines by 73 percent” writes Hoffman.

Individual states are reporting alarming drops in vaccines for children.

For example, Minnesota is reporting a 71% drop and Massachusetts is reporting a 68% drop during the COVID-19 crisis. In Washington state, where COVID-19 spread was significant, many medical offices and clinics have closed and parents are unable to get their kids vaccinated. State officials are now reporting their biggest measles outbreak in 30 years.

Hoffman reports that the vaccination crisis is global and that more than 100 million children around the world are at risk as many international organizations that provide vaccinations, such as the World Health Organization and UNICEF, are facing limitations in program outreach due to the pandemic.

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As we have learned too well from our COVID-19 experience, unvaccinated people in other countries place Americans at risk. Viruses and other germs don’t recognize boundaries and travel fast and efficiently from one state to another, and from one nation to another.

To help reduce the drop in vaccinations with many clinics closed to visitors, some clinics are making house calls to vaccinate children.

Some hospital centers are using mobile vaccination units where parents can drive up to a hospital parking lot in order for a provider to reach into the vehicle and vaccinate their children like we are doing now with mobile testing for COVID-19.

For example, the pediatric ambulatory department at Boston Medical Center, which treats nearly 15,000 children, began sending vaccination mobile units into city neighborhoods. It also stationed a dedicated van for vaccines and well-baby checkups in front of the hospital.

In the early weeks of the shelter-in-place orders, doctors concentrated efforts on vaccinating infants up to 2 years old and put off follow-up vaccination schedules for older children. Initially, they thought that this would be just a temporary postponement and that they could readily catch up once restrictions were lifted.

But the longer restrictions continue, the more worried doctors have become about protection for older children if booster shots are missed for diseases like measles, mumps and rubella for 4- and 5-year-olds, and tetanus and whooping cough, for 11-year-olds, as immunity begins to wane. Many pediatricians are concerned that they may not be able to handle the backlog from canceled appointments, especially when combined with the normal back-to-school rush.

The good news is that some medical professionals have observed, or at least hope for, greater public respect and appreciation for vaccinations brought on by the seriousness of COVID-19. Time will tell, however, as some people are already protesting a COVID-19 vaccination that doesn’t even exist.

For now, pediatricians are asking parents not to put off important vaccinations and booster shots for too long.

Talk to your child’s pediatrician and don’t wait for the last minute to get your children vaccinated for daycare, pre-school, or kindergarten. Some vaccinations take 2 to 4 weeks to have a maximum effect, so you don’t want to wait until the end of the summer to seek an appointment.

Tom Zirpoli is the coordinator of the Human Services Management graduate program at McDaniel College. His column appears on Wednesdays. Email him at tzirpoli@mcdaniel.edu.

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