This post was updated May 1 with additional information
It's World Immunization Week, but there's evidence that vaccinations are down as checkups get postponed or skipped due to worries about getting exposed to the new coronavirus.
"We've heard at the federal level that orders for vaccines from the Vaccines For Children program and CDC have been down," said Dr. Sean O'Leary, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Colorado Anschutz and Children's Hospital Colorado. "We've also heard from a number of payers that billing codes are down."
According to the New York Times, an electronic health records company called PCC surveyed 1,000 pediatricians across the country and found that they gave half as many measles, mumps and rubella vaccines in early April than they gave in mid-February.
“Vaccinations among Colorado children and adolescents have slowed during the COVID-19 response,” said a spokesperson with Colorado’s health department, adding that data from the Colorado Immunization Information System shows the average number of vaccines administered each week is about half what it was in early 2020 for children under age 2. It’s about one sixth what it was for children 3 to 9 years old, and about one fifteenth what it was for children aged 10 to 17.
"Yes, there are some things that are spreading less because of social distancing and physical distancing," said O'Leary, who is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on infectious diseases.
But, he said, social distancing won't necessarily protect a baby from catching a bacterium like Haemophilus influenzae type b or Streptococcus pneumoniae, which might not cause any trouble for adults or older children but could cause meningitis or pneumonia in their infant relatives.
"They're at individual risk of picking up these diseases," O'Leary said. "And then a little bit longer term are the bigger risks of outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases – things like measles and pertussis and even things we haven't seen in this country in decades, like diphtheria … And even with limited travel there's still potential for those diseases to come into the U.S. and result in an outbreak."
As the Denver Post has reported, some pediatricians are going to extensive measures to continue providing regular care to their patients, like providing drive-up vaccinations and dedicating certain locations to well-child visits.
"Without systematic efforts to maintain immunisation programmes, the virus's legacy could include a disastrous surge in childhood deaths," Dr. Edward Parker, a research fellow at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine's Vaccine Centre, wrote in The Guardian. "Recent history cautions us of the consequences of disrupted vaccination efforts. Explosive outbreaks of measles have consistently followed humanitarian crises, the war in Syria, the Ethiopian famine in 2000 and the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004. Last year, while buckling under the strain of its largest ever Ebola outbreak, the Democratic Republic of the Congo was hit by a measles epidemic. So far, this has caused at least 310,000 cases and more than 6,000 deaths – more than double the number of fatalities from Ebola."
In a statement, the Colorado health department said it’s “convening an initial group of stakeholders to discuss how best to organize a strategic response to raise vaccinations. Disruption of routine immunization, even for brief periods, will result in increased numbers of susceptible individuals and increase the likelihood of vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks in the coming months.”
As for attitudes toward vaccines, O'Leary said that, anecdotally, some doctors and parents report that people seem to be more welcoming of vaccines after the COVID-19 pandemic than they were before.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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