Vaccinations that have been around for decades are now becoming unnecessarily politicized following the pandemic and have caused measles outbreaks like the one that started in central Ohio and has now reached Clark County with one case, Columbus Health Commissioner Dr. Mysheika Roberts said.
Vaccinations are being viewed more negatively since the pandemic, Roberts said, adding that misinformation and disinformation, the latter being false information spread with the intention of misleading subjects, are becoming nearly impossible to counter.
This movement of vaccine hesitancy is also coming at a time where public health officials are facing underfunding, staff burnout, and growing mistrust from the public, said Roberts.
“We are at a very critical point,” Roberts said.
A new poll released this week by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that fully one-third of parents overall, and more than four in 10 Republicans, do not support schools continuing to require routine vaccination against measles and other illnesses. This is an increase since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, said Chrissie Juliano, executive director of the Big Cities Health Coalition, which is a national forum for the leaders of America’s largest metropolitan health departments.
“Vaccines are one of the most effective tools we have to save lives and avoid severe disease,” Juliano said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends children get two doses of the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine, known as the MMR vaccine, starting when the child is 12 months to 15 months, followed by a second dose when the child is between 4 and 6 years.
The poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation found 28% of the participates think parents should be able to decide not to vaccinate their children with the MMR vaccine, even if that may create health risks for other children and adults. This is an increase from the 16% of adults who participated in the poll in 2019.
In that same poll, 35% of parents with children under the age of 18 think parents should be able to decide not to vaccinate their children with the MMR vaccine, which is up from 23% in 2019.
“This trend has real consequences,” Juliano said.
The current measles outbreak in central Ohio, including a case involving an infant in Clark County, is up to 81 cases, as of Tuesday, including 29 children who have been hospitalized. The cases include 76 unvaccinated children, 22 children under the age of one year who are too young to be vaccinated, three children who have received one dose of the MMR vaccine, and two children with an unknown vaccination status. There have been no fully vaccinated children who have caught the measles in this outbreak.
Roberts said it was likely that they were seeing a large portion of hospitalizations due to the young ages of those involved.
“Our young children are more sensitive to any infectious disease,” Roberts said.
Public health officials have interviewed the parents involved in the measles outbreak. Roberts said the parents of the unvaccinated children who were old enough for immunizations had put off the immunizations due to a concern for autism. Studies have shown there is no link between receiving vaccines and developing autism spectrum disorder, the Centers for Disease Control says.
None of the parents interviewed mentioned access to a vaccine provider as a reason why an eligible child was not vaccinated, Roberts said.
“It really was an intentional decision not to get their child vaccinated,” Roberts said.
A recent Dayton Daily News investigation found there is a growing moral opposition to vaccinations required for school with experts attributing anti-vaccine sentiments to misinformation.
The newspaper found parents are increasingly choosing to opt their children out of getting immunized against vaccine-preventable diseases like diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis B, and chickenpox. The percentage of children entering kindergarten with moral exemptions from getting such vaccines increased statewide last year and was over 10% at 14 area schools. There were only five schools over that threshold the year before.
Statewide, the percentage of kindergarteners unvaccinated for moral or religious reasons climbed from 2.4% to 3.2%. The percentage of kindergarteners statewide with all required vaccines last year increased to 88.2%. The Dayton Daily News reported earlier this year that vaccination rates dropped in the 2020-2021 school year, largely because of access issues and school staffing shortages during the height of the pandemic.
On Tuesday, Roberts said vaccinations have become unnecessarily politicized and this has been going on since the pandemic.
“I think what we experienced at the height of the pandemic, particularly when the COVID-19 vaccine became available, is how public health and particularly vaccines became political or were politicized. That was something that was never experienced before in our country, and that, I believe, is going to hurt public health moving forward. Why did vaccines become a political issue? ” Roberts said. “Vaccines are science. They’re public health. And vaccines and public health should be apolitical.”
If this trend continues to grow, health officials fear a resurgence of other vaccine-preventable illnesses.
“There are a host of vaccine-preventable diseases,” Roberts said. “Our fear is that if we see more vaccine reluctance or hesitancy moving forward, we’re going to see a resurgence of some of those other diseases, like hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and we know that when we go to many foreign countries that hepatitis A is a concern. We don’t want the United States to be one of those countries.”
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