The coronavirus pandemic has had several unforeseen consequences, including a dramatic decline in routine trips to the doctor’s office. Annual physicals, checkups for chronic conditions and especially childhood vaccines have been put on hold.
The World Health Organization said, “Disruption to immunization programs from the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to unwind decades of progress against vaccine-preventable diseases like measles and polio.” The total number of non-flu vaccines fell by 21.5% in the first four months of 2020, among children 18 and younger, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
With schools and daycares reopening in some parts of Arkansas next month, it’s a good time to remember that Arkansas law requires, as a condition of admission, that students’ vaccines be current. For children, the Arkansas Department of Health
has individual information sheets on the major childhood vaccine-preventable diseases here. A list of vaccines required for admission to Arkansas schools and daycares is on pages 11-15 of this webpage.
Now is a good time to check the list and contact your child’s health care provider for an appointment to get needed booster shots. Medical practices have adjusted and made arrangements for safe visits. Ask about those when you make an appointment for your child’s vaccine updates.
Failing to keep children’s immunizations current increases the risk of outbreaks of measles, mumps, rubella, influenza, whooping cough and other childhood diseases. The CDC reports that the percentage of children under age 2 who have not received any vaccinations has quadrupled in the past 18 years. Refusal to have their children vaccinated is risky and potentially dangerous behavior on the part of parents or caregivers.
The coronavirus pandemic has painfully taught us that infectious diseases can cause severe illness, sometimes causing permanent impairment and even death. Sixteen potentially dangerous childhood diseases are preventable with safe and effective vaccines. For example, measles was eliminated in the United States in 2000. But since then, hundreds of measles outbreaks have occurred in small groups or families that do not vaccinate their children.
In these outbreaks, at least one member had exposure to a person who had traveled here from another country. International travel can spread diseases worldwide in a matter of days.
New research shows that children who survive a measles infection are vulnerable to other potentially deadly infections for up to three years. A measles infection seems to erase the immune system’s memory cells. This increases the risk that an unvaccinated child, or one who survives a measles infection, is dangerously vulnerable to other potentially deadly diseases or viral infections. Thus, a measles vaccine can prevent both measles and other illnesses, some potentially deadly. If children receive an annual flu vaccine, researchers found that it can prevent intensive care hospitalizations by 74%, according to the CDC.
Germs that cause infectious diseases survive in the community by finding new, unvaccinated people to infect. Vaccines work by boosting the immune system’s natural ability to detect and destroy disease-causing germs. The vaccine makes the immune system remember the best way to fight the same germs in the future.
Vaccines protect everyone in the community, including those who cannot be vaccinated such as infants, those fighting serious illnesses such as cancer, and frail elderly people. If healthy children and adults are vaccinated, it provides that protection against exposure for those who have no defenses.
Vaccines are one of the most successful weapons in the fight against disease and death. Deadly smallpox and polio have been eliminated due to near-universal vaccination. For children born in the United States over the past 20 years, vaccines will prevent 322 million illnesses, 21 million hospitalizations and about 740,000 deaths, according to the CDC.
The United States has the safest, most effective vaccine supply in its history. Vaccines must undergo rigorous testing before they are tested on humans. Even after they become widely used, vaccines continue to be monitored and, if needed, are updated for safety and effectiveness. Monitoring also prevents serious side effects, which are rare. Discomfort or tenderness at the injection site can happen but is not serious and resolves by itself.
Other reasons to keep your child’s vaccine schedule current include:
- Prevents diseases, post-disease complications, disability, and reduces the risk of hospitalization or death;
- Protects those who cannot be vaccinated;
- Reduces the chances that people with weakened immune systems or chronic conditions will develop serious complications from vaccine-preventable diseases;
- Reduces the chances of passing on a serious disease to family, friends or classmates;
- Prevents missed school and other activities, and missed work for parents who must stay home with sick children;
- Prevents feeling sick for days or weeks;
- Avoids the costs of getting sick – medications, medical visits, hospitalizations – estimated to be $295 billion in direct medical costs for children born since 2000; for adults, it would save $27 billion in direct medical costs;
- Because vaccinated children don’t get sick, vaccines reduce the prevalence and slow the development of diseases that are resistant to antibiotics, thus reducing antibiotic resistance; and
- Peace of mind knowing your child’s health is protected.
The Vaccines for Children (VFC) program can provide free vaccines for eligible children. Visit Arkansas’ VFC website.
Editor’s note: Dr. Chad Rodgers is an Arkansas pediatrician and is the Chief Medical Officer for the Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care. The opinions expressed are those of the author. Dr. Rodgers discussed immunizations, a potential vaccine for COVID-19 and school re-openings in this recent interview.