‘This is alarming’: Childhood vaccination rates drop as measles and polio outbreaks emerge

Vaccinated child with a bandaid on her arm

This article appeared in USA Today. Read more here.

Immunization rates for measles, polio and other diseases once again dropped among kindergartners last school year, a trend public health officials warn puts kids at risk for vaccine-preventable diseases.

About 93% of kindergartners during the 2021-22 school year completed vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella; diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis; polio; and chickenpox. The coverage dropped nearly 1% from 2020-21 and about 2% from the year before the COVID-19 pandemic started, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study released Thursday.

The study did not track the number of children who received COVID-19 vaccines or boosters.

Public health officials said the report showed school-age vaccination rates worsened during the pandemic as families missed doctors visits and school routines were disrupted. But another CDC study, also released Thursday, reported vaccination rates among 2-year-olds were similar to pre-pandemic levels.

Experts said misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine might have influenced parents’ decisions, but officials cautioned such a link requires more study.

“Misinformation is a problem and has always been a problem,” said Dr. Sean O’Leary, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Infectious Diseases. “We’re still trying to understand the extent to which disinformation around COVID has spread to misinformation about other childhood vaccines.”

Measles vaccine rates drop as outbreaks emerge

Public health experts say the rising rates of nonvaccinated children raises the risk for everyone. Diseases that were well controlled a generation ago are beginning to reemerge as vaccination rates slip.

The CDC report said about 93.5% of children were fully protected against measles. That left about 250,000 kindergartners unprotected against a disease that can lead to outbreaks among clusters of unprotected kids.

Public health officials want to see about 95% of the population vaccinated against measles to achieve “herd immunity” against outbreaks.

An outbreak in Columbus, Ohio, last year resulted in more than 80 cases among young, mostly unvaccinated children. It was one of two major outbreaks in 2022. About 88.3% of Ohio kindergartners had completed their two-dose measles vaccine, the CDC report said.

Measles vaccine rates lag in 9 states

New York had the highest measles immunization rate at 98% and was among 13 states above the 95% threshold. Alaska had the lowest, at 78%.

Another eight states had rates below 90%: Minnesota, New Hampshire, Colorado, Ohio, Kentucky, Idaho, Georgia and Wisconsin. About 82% of kindergartners in Washington, D.C., completed their two-shot vaccination.

“We must remain vigilant and efforts to ensure children get the vaccines they need to protect against serious diseases,” said Dr. Georgina Peacock, director of the CDC’s immunization services division.

Polio vaccine rate dip as threat emerges

Polio vaccine rates ranged from 97.6% in Louisiana and Nebraska to 77.1% in Alaska.

Last summer, an unvaccinated 20-year-old New York man was diagnosed with polio. He became ill and suffered leg paralysis that health officials described as permanent.

Last month, the New York State Department of Health reported wastewater samples surfaced as positive for polio in Orange County. The two positive tests, which followed weeks of negative tests, were genetically linked to the earlier polio case.

“Outbreaks like this are entirely preventable,” said O’Leary, referring to the New York polio cases and two measles outbreaks last year. “This is alarming – it should be a call to action for all of us.”

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You’ve got questions. That’s a good thing.

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