We’re so close to eradicating polio. It’s been a decades-long effort. The CDC tells us that in the late 1940s, 35,000 people in the United States were paralyzed every year from the disease. My father had polio as a child; one of his legs remains longer than the other. Travel was restricted and quarantines imposed during outbreaks. But through successful vaccination campaigns, we eliminated polio in the US in 1979.
The WHO says that as of 2017, we were 99% of the way towards eradicating polio worldwide thanks to efforts from the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. But now, thanks to falling vaccine rates during COVID-19, The New York Times reports that a mutated strand of polio has been reported in over thirty countries. One CDC doctor worries that COVID-19 will set back decades of work to destroy the disease throughout the world.
But it’s not just polio, folks.
Measles vaccination rates are plummeting worldwide, says The New York Times — and the measles is radically more contagious than COVID-19. Dengue fever, yellow fever, mumps … the list goes on and on. And it’s not just in developing nations, either. Falling vaccination rates in the United States could pose a grave danger when schools open.
Falling Vaccination Rates: Measles in Developing Countries
Let’s look at measles. According to the Times article, if one person with measles walks into a room, two hours later, if ten unvaccinated people walk into that same room, they will all get measles. That’s because measles is transmitted by aerosol: tiny particles or droplets suspended in the air.” COVID-19, on the other hand, according to the CDC, is spread by “respiratory droplets” that don’t linger in the air as long (and possibly on hard surfaces). So measles is wildly more contagious than COVID-19. “Measles anywhere is measles everywhere,” says a doctor from the WHO.
In poorer countries, 3-6% of kids under five who get measles will die, says the Times. This number gets bigger when kids are malnourished or otherwise ill. So falling vaccination rates are terrifying.
Ethiopia canceled its measles vaccination program because of COVID-19. The WHO says that vaccination programs in at least 68 countries have been disrupted by COVID-19, explains another New York Times article. There’s lots of reasons for that. In many places, falling vaccination rates come from health care workers diverted to take care of the COVID-19 crisis: there’s just not enough people to do the hard work of immunization, which often involves travel to incredibly rural areas.
In other cases, like the Congo, rumors fly, says the Times. People in one remote village in the Congo had heard that Africa would be used as a testing ground for an experimental COVID-19 vaccine. They refused measles vaccines for their children, fearing the vaccine wasn’t for the measles at all, but instead an experimental drug. Aid workers weren’t able to vaccinate all the children in the area because of it — 2,000 of them.
Let’s do the math.
Imagine all of those unvaccinated kids get the measles. If 3-6% of kids in developing nations die of the measles or complications from it, then 60 to 120 of those children will die.
But It’s Not Just Developing Nations…
The United States is also suffering from falling vaccination rates.
Even back in March, the CDC was reminding people of the importance of vaccinations and well-child visits. But many parents are terrified to take their child to a doctor’s office, with dangerous results. There was a “notable decrease” in the number of vaccines ordered by pediatricians’ offices. The decrease was less pronounced regarding vaccines for kids less than two years old. The CDC says this means we’re at higher risk for outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases — including measles.
This could pose even more of a concern as social distancing measures are relaxed. What happens when kids start to congregate again in places like playgrounds and summer camps and even schools? Remember how easily transmittable measles is? Remember that kids need two doses of an MMR vaccine to be fully protected against the disease? And older kids are the ones who aren’t getting those well-child visits and those vaccines, according to the CDC.
But that doesn’t mean little ones are getting vaxxed, either. According to the New York Times, in Michigan, fewer than half of all babies under five months are up-to-date on their recommended vaccinations. That’s terrifying.
What disease are they especially worried about?
Dr. Matthew L. Boulton, a professor of epidemiology and preventive medicine at the University of Michigan, says this isn’t a shock. With stay-at-home orders in place, many parents probably thought they couldn’t go to their child’s well-visits, or their child’s doctors weren’t having well visits at all (my son’s doctor saw him for a mysterious rash via telehealth, then ran down in full surgical gear to swab him in the parking lot and called us with the results; their prescriptions for ADHD medication, which usually require a well-child visit, have been refilled without them). Other parents, Boulton says, “did not want” to visit doctors for routine check-ups.
As Angry As You May Want To Be About Falling Vaccination Rates…
You can’t fault parents in developing countries for refusing, as the New York Times describes, to allow their children to sit in crowded clinics or lines to get immunized — when we know that we need to practice social distancing as much as possible. You can’t fault parents who have for refusing routine vaccinations when they’ve heard rumors that it’s actually an experimental vaccine — and when pharmaceutical companies have pulled this before, says the New York Times. You can’t blame countries for canceling flights because of COVID-19, which means vaccines can’t ship; you can’t blame them for diverting healthcare workers to fight the pandemic.
Moreover? As angry as it may make you, you can’t blame American parents for wanting to avoid the doctor’s office right now. Yes, the CDC says you should go, and therefore, so do we — especially if COVID-19 cases are falling in your area, and you take proper precautions. I have relatives who’ve had kids in doctors’ offices for necessary procedures since the pandemic began, and they’ve emerged unscathed. Wear a mask. Don’t touch anything, and don’t let your kid touch anything.
Do not allow your child to congregate with other children unless they’re up-to-date on their vaccines. Period.
Falling vaccine rates are terrifying. Do not send your child to school, camp, playgrounds, or places where other children may visit — even if they aren’t currently present — unless they’re up-to-date on they’re vaccines. You heard how virulent measles is.
Don’t be the start of the next epidemic. Especially not when we’re still struggling with this one.