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Medical experts pleaded Monday with the public to update immunizations, one day after a team of epidemiologists was deployed over the weekend in New York state, where the first polio case in nearly a decade was confirmed in the U.S.
Health officials in Michigan and across the county have been raising red flags over a decline in routine immunizations since the start of the pandemic, fearing the trend could result in a resurgence of diseases like polio and measles.
Toddler immunizations have fallen 6% over the past two years. Only about 68% of toddlers are up-to-date on immunizations, leaving about 32% at risk for contracting preventable diseases that can result in serious illness, hospitalization, permanent disability or death, according to the the Michigan Academy of Family Physicians.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have seen an alarming decrease in childhood vaccinations,” said Dr. Glenn Dregansky, a family physicians in Jerome and president of the academy said in a media briefing Monday.
The academy is the state’s largest medical specialty association, representing more than 4,200 family physicians, family medicine residents and medical students across the state.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Sunday issued an urgent call for Americans to be immunized after an adult in Rockland County, part of the New York City metropolitan area, was diagnosed with polio and became paralyzed.
The treacherous virus was found in seven water samples taken in Rockland and adjacent Orange County, leading health officials to surmise that the virus may already have spread to hundreds of others in the region.
People may not think about illnesses suffered by past generations because immunizations have stemmed the diseases, said Dr. Delicia Pruitt, a family physician with CMU Medical Education Partners in Saginaw, medical director of the Saginaw County Health Department and an associate professor in the CMU College of Medicine.
“Since we don’t hear much about many of these contagious illnesses of the past, people often forget just how dangerous they actually are,” Pruitt said.
Pruitt said measles is so contagious that nine out of 10 people who come in contact with an infected person can be expected to catch the virus if they are not fully vaccinated. The disease in so dangerous that, in some cases, it can result in brain swelling, leading to permanent brain damage or death, she said.
Pruitt said children who are not vaccinated against pertussis, the potentially deadly disease known as whooping cough, are eight times as likely to become infected. About half of children who come down with pertussis require hospitalization, she said.
Children are exposed to 2,000 to 6,000 illness-causing antigens every day, the academy said. When children and teens are behind on vaccines, the risk of diseases re-emerging and causing outbreaks significantly increases.
One of the biggest threats to public health is misinformation about vaccines, said Dr. Beena Nagappala, medical director of community health with Ascension Southeast Michigan, and president-elect of the Michigan Academy of Family Physicians.
“Not only do family physicians administer immunizations, they’re also there to talk with you about science and evidence-based reasons why vaccines are so important for preventing illnesses,” Nagappala said.
“If you have questions about contagious diseases and immunizations that prevent them, please ask us rather than consulting the internet or relying on social media.”
The family doctors said it’s important for everyone to get caught up on their immunizations, to keep diseases of the past from becoming public health threats again. The decline in immunizations has been even more pronounced in communities of color, they said, increasing health risks in communities already subject to heath disparities.
“We understand that a big driver of this downward trend began when, due to COVID, people were unable to visit their primary care physicians for in-person appointments for things like immunizations,” said Pruitt. “But now we can connect in-person again.
“And it is time, and it is overdue, for us to do everything we can to protect our children, and the most vulnerable in our communities, from preventable disease by getting caught up on our immunizations.”