VOICES: We are slipping back into the era of children dying from vaccine-preventable diseases

As a pediatrician, my typical reading material may be a bit boring. One of my favorite articles in recent years is, “7 great achievements in pediatrics in the last 40 years,” by Dr. Tina Cheng of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. In a list that includes curing a common childhood cancer, saving premature infants with underdeveloped lungs, and protecting children with car seats and seat belts—number one on the list is preventing disease with life-saving immunizations. These 40 years of medical wonderment basically covers my whole career as a primary care physician.

In the early days of my medical training at The Ohio State University Columbus Children’s Hospital (now Nationwide Children’s), we saw children die from diseases that we now have vaccines to prevent. My young colleagues at Dayton Children’s Hospital have never seen many of the infections we routinely encountered. And when vaccines continued to be developed and children survived to be adults, we blessed the research that gave these children a chance to live. We had years of grateful parents with thriving children, who eventually lost the memories of these deadly diseases. Despite these great successes, vaccines have gotten a bruised reputation in recent years.

Myths and misinformation have grown, spread widely in this era of social media comments as proven facts. Pediatric health care providers fought back with valid medical information and guided our families with science and truth. The COVID-19 pandemic brought a new wave of fear, especially of the unknown. Despite the success of another life-saving vaccine, the COVID vaccine, mistrust of the science of vaccines grew. Mistrust of long-standing routine childhood vaccines is also growing.

A recent Dayton Daily News article described our community’s decreasing routine vaccine rates in local schools, creating five hotspots for potential outbreaks of vaccine preventable diseases, like polio, measles and whooping cough. Again.

The past few weeks has seen a sharp increase in another outbreak of infectious disease. Influenza and RSV are flooding emergency rooms and local pediatric offices. The pandemic years saw children isolated from friends and limited their exposure to illness. Now these children have little immunity to the common winter respiratory viruses, and these diseases are rapidly spreading. We don’t have vaccines for every virus. We do have the flu vaccine though. We strongly recommend all children six months of age and older receive influenza vaccines. The flu vaccine is safe. Safer than the risk of dying from influenza.

At the primary care clinic in Dayton Children’s Hospital, we recognize the barriers to care that the pandemic caused. Pre-pandemic, Dayton Children’s Pediatrics had vaccine rates around the 90th percentile. During the height of the COVID era, some communities fell below 50% vaccine rates for routine vaccines. We are encouraging our patients to get back to health care appointments and update delayed routine vaccines.

We ask families about concerns they have around vaccines and try to provide the needed answers. We share the fact that, despite what they may see on social media, most people really do trust science and vaccinate their children. We know some families struggle to have access to care, and sometimes request vaccine exemptions just to keep their kids going to school and parents going to work. We try to offer every opportunity to update vaccines of the many, to keep other children safe who are too young or immune compromised to be vaccinated. Herd immunity is real and community vaccine rates of 85% are good, but 95% is better. We don’t have new data post-COVID yet for our clinic, but our staff is optimistic that we are gaining on that 95% goal of completion of childhood vaccinations by kindergarten and adolescence.

So if there are parents out there who want good information about vaccines, ask a trusted health care provider. For parents who want to do their own research, great resources include CDC.gov/vaccines, HealthyChildren.org and OhioAAP.org.

The last 40 years of children’s health care has seen great achievements, with children living to be healthy and productive adults. Let’s not slip back into the era of children dying from vaccine-preventable diseases. It takes a village to keep children safe, and vaccines for all eligible citizens is how we can do that.

Dr. Guerrero-Duby is a pediatrician with Dayton Children’s Pediatrics.

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