Decline in childhood immunizations leads to risk of resurgence

In addition to the recent focus on the COVID-19 vaccine, the pandemic has also highlighted a need for other vaccinations to be discussed. Not only did the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention see routine childhood vaccine orders decrease by around 11.7 million doses in 2021, but the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services also reported significant drops in childhood immunization rates across both county and state. 

According to Kent County Health Department’s Immunization Program Supervisor Mary Wisinski, immunization rates dropped around 3 percent within the pediatric space in Kent County from 2019 to 2021. In the 24-35 month age group, Wisinski reports a 4 percent decrease statewide in vaccine coverage used to protect against diseases such as measles, mumps and whooping cough. “That means over 30% of our kids are not protected,” Wisinski says. “Without high levels of community immunity, these diseases could make a comeback.”

Though Wisinski says COVID-19 heightened vaccination hesitancy due to office closures and fear of in-person visits, even before the pandemic, immunization rates started to see an impact. Worldwide, WHO and UNICEF reported global childhood vaccination rates stalling around 86 percent but to protect against these diseases, like measles, a community needs 95% of the population to be immune. 

Spectrum Health’s Dr. Hanna Jaworski says one of the main causes for vaccination hesitancy of any kind stems from the growth of social media and access to information on these platforms. 
 
“When we’re talking about vaccines and medical or diagnostic care, a lot of those resources you may find on social media aren't always based on medical evidence or that scientific rigor we have come to expect in the medical community when we're making recommendations for things,” Jaworski says. “Because there’s so much information being thrown at folks on places like Facebook, Twitter or TikTok, it becomes hard for people to know what's real and factual versus what’s a misrepresentation, misunderstanding or something that may not even have happened.”

Dr. Hanna JaworskiAs people grapple with this influx of daily messaging, posts and opinions, Jaworski explains not being able to recognize what is true or false often leads to a general sense of distrust toward information overall. “Coming from the medical profession, we certainly want folks to look at scientific data,” Jaworski says. “But the problem is if people don’t know what to think or who to believe, the next concerned question they may have is ‘can I trust anybody?’” 
 
When misinformation spreads, a risk of danger follows suit. “There’s still harm that continues on even after data has been proven false,” Jaworski says. “You’ll still hear people say, ‘I don’t want to risk the chance of autism with the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine so I’m not going to vaccinate my child’ — even though there’s no linkage or connection whatsoever.” 
 
Since immunizations have helped curb these diseases over the years, it can also be tough for people to understand the real risks lying beneath them. However, just because you may not see whooping cough in the news as often as COVID-19, that doesn’t mean it still does not pose a threat.
 
“One I worry about in particular for our young kids is pertussis — more commonly known as whooping cough,” Jaworski says. “If a healthy teenager or adult catches whooping cough, it may be an annoyance, dealing with those coughing fits, but it probably won’t cause anything life-threatening. But the reason why we still recommend folks to get immunized against whooping cough is to protect young children, since it can kill babies.”
 
The danger does not only lie within the person receiving the immunization but also those around them. In the case of measles, Jaworski explains children under the age of one are not able to receive the MMR vaccine until they hit the one year mark. If more and more children do not receive vaccinations, the risk is not only for the unvaccinated, but also the children who may be ineligible to receive certain vaccinations due to their age or immune system condition. The same goes for adults who may have health complications stopping them from receiving immunizations. “These folks are dependent upon the herd immunity around them,” Jaworski says. “Protecting them from infections is the real long-term risk since once the herd immunity is lowered and you bring enough people together, you’re going to start seeing these outbreaks and these diseases circulating again on a regular basis.”
 
Despite the threat, Jaworski continues to see parents concerned over what is being injected into their child and the potential side effects that may result. One common thought is to wait until a child is older to receive these immunizations but Jaworski says the health community created specific immunization timetables for a reason. “No one wants their child to be the one who has a bad reaction, but these vaccines will protect them from severe illnesses, hospitalization and death during the time at which they’re at the greatest risk,” Jaworski says. “It’s the same reason why we vaccinate pregnant moms — because we want them to share those antibodies with their babies to protect them and help their babies build up their own immunity before they can get the vaccine on their own.” 


 
Throughout Jaworski’s years of practice, she also ensures her parents she’s only seen one adverse reaction and that was only a bit of swelling, which went down after some time. “I understand people have concerns about the unknown, and being a parent is so hard. It’s so difficult to know what is the best thing for your child,” Jaworski says. “But, I always like to remind folks, the people in the medical and scientific community have made it their life’s work to help keep people healthy and safe. We all want what’s best for your children and we’re here to be your partner throughout the process.”
 
While teaching residents, Jaworski places a high degree of transparency with families because as doctors, they are always learning. “With all the knowledge we have today, what I can tell you is best for your child is to vaccinate them,” Jaworski says. “At the end of the day, people developed these for the right reasons — and that was to prevent those long-term consequences or potential death.”
 
If parents do have questions, hesitations or concerns, Jaworski says that is a normal part of the process and all you have to do is ask. “If you’re not sure what to do, what’s true, or even if you’re just worried, have a conversation with your child’s provider.” Jaworski says. “After years of schooling, practicing and working alongside families to help them figure out what is the best thing to do, we would never lead you astray. We want to build trust with our families through open, frank conversations that are based [on] evidence.”
 

Photos courtesy of Spectrum Health
This article is presented in partnership with Spectrum Health.