In a time when every trip out of the house brings fresh worries, it’s as important as ever to make sure children still receive their vaccinations. Over the past few months, as reported by the New York Times, vaccinations have dropped by an alarming rate: a 50 per cent decrease for measles, mumps and rubella shots, a 42 per cent decrease for whooping cough shots and a 73 per cent decrease for HPV vaccines.
As parents put off well visits for their children, there is a risk that, in addition to the pandemic, we are creating conditions in which we might also see a resurgence of other diseases. Just last year, the U.S. had 1,282 cases of measles, the highest number since 1992, and the majority of which were in unvaccinated people. If vaccination rates continue to drop, there is a risk of more measles outbreaks, along with outbreaks of other diseases we haven’t had to worry about for a very long time, such as diphtheria or whooping cough.
In order to keep these diseases from coming back, experts estimate we need ensure 90 to 95 per cent of the population is immunised, a challenging number to hit even in normal circumstances. In the middle of a pandemic, with many global immunisation initiatives paused or postponed, staying up to date on vaccines becomes even more critical.
Vulnerable patients are highest priority
“Right now, the current recommendation from the CDC is that vaccinations should be focused on the most vulnerable,” says Ada Stewart, president-elect of the American Academy of Family Physicians and a practicing family physician in Columbia, South Carolina.
The most vulnerable patients include newborns up to 24 months, as well as kids who have medical conditions that would put them at higher risks for complications. However, older children still need their vaccinations as well, and should be kept as close to their normal vaccination schedule as possible.
As the World Health Organisation noted in a release on COVID-19, “Immunisation is a core health service that should be prioritised for the prevention of communicable diseases and safeguarded for continuity during the COVID-19 pandemic, where feasible.”
Safety practices will vary depending on location
As Stewart notes, how a doctor’s office handles vaccinations will vary depending on their physical constraints and geographic locality. “It’s not one size fits all,” Stewart says.
For example, a doctor’s office might need to handle things differently if they are located in a big hospital versus a freestanding location, or if they are in an area with a lot of COVID-19 cases versus a smaller outbreak.
“We have to go outside the box now, with everything that is going on,” Stewart says.
Some of the precautions offices are taking include separating well child visits from sick visits, limiting the amount of time patients spend in the office, making sure everyone is wearing masks and prescreening patients in order to ensure no one else in the family is sick.
“Your physician’s office is doing everything they can to make sure it is a safe place,” Stewart says.
Vaccines prevent other outbreaks from occurring
About a month ago, as the lockdowns began and we were all adjusting to our new normal, I faced this same situation. My son had just turned one and it was time for his checkup, which was to include his first dose of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine.
For the visit, my doctor’s office only allowed one well child into the clinic at a time, and had a separate team to see sick kids, who were treated while staying in their cars. Since my son was a toddler with a habit of putting things in his mouth, I had him stay in his stroller during the visit. The office staff wore masks and kept the doors open so I didn’t have to touch any door handles on the way in or out.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t terrified. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t weigh the risk of postponing the visit to a later date. In the middle of a pandemic, there are no simple choices.
For me, personally, the deciding factor was this: I didn’t want to risk my son getting sick from a disease that could be prevented with a vaccine. My parents grew up in the years before the polio vaccine, when everyone was terrified of catching a disease that could paralyse or kill you. My son also had the bad luck of catching one preventable disease—chicken pox—that he’d been exposed to before he was old enough to be vaccinated. I didn’t want to add measles to my list of worries.
As we are all anxiously waiting for a COVID-19 vaccine, it’s important to remember all of the other diseases we no longer have to worry about… thanks to vaccines. As scary as a doctor’s office visit is right now, making sure your kids get their vaccines is a pretty important reason to go. Just make sure to talk to your doctor about what measures they are taking.