Plummeting child vaccination rates could lead to 'diseases we haven't seen in decades'

June 05, 2020
Adeline Pack, age 4, wearing a mask at a check-up.
Four-year-old Adeline Pack gets a check-up that was delayed by the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

Pediatric critical care specialist Elizabeth Mack, M.D., worries that pandemic-driven delays in childhood vaccinations and checkups could lead to serious problems. 

“We are going to be seeing so many more problems on the back end if we don’t quickly catch up,” the MUSC Children’s Health doctor said. “I worry that we are going to be seeing things we haven’t seen in decades.”

The drop-off in pediatric visits began in mid-March after the president declared a national emergency as the coronavirus spread through the U.S. Families stayed home, and doctors scrambled to figure out how to see kids who weren’t sick but did need shots to stay on a vaccination schedule. Kids also needed to be screened for things like developmental delays, attention deficit disorder, food insecurity, healthy weight, depression, infectious diseases and lead poisoning.

Mack said the number of babies getting vaccinations dropped to about a fifth of the normal level. Older kids’ vaccination rates dropped, too.

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a catch-up schedule for kids. But obviously, when you get off track, you’re at more risk. They’re recommended on a schedule for a reason,” Mack said.

Dr. Elizabeth Mack 
Dr. Elizabeth Mack encourages families worried about coming into pediatricians' offices to call ahead and ask what precautions are being taken during the pandemic.

“I really worry that only a fifth of the kids are getting vaccinated for a period of time. If people don’t catch up quickly, there won’t be very many people protected. And the people who can’t get vaccinated for some things – like immunocompromised children, for example, typically can’t be vaccinated for varicella, measles, mumps – won’t be protected, because there won’t be herd immunity. Immunocompromised people typically rely on the rest of us.”

Mack said the American Academy of Pediatrics, for which she is a spokeswoman, is encouraging parents to start trying to get back on track. “There’s a huge push from the AAP to get your well checks. That can’t be delayed. And well-child checks are not just about immunizations. With significant delays, imagine all of the things we’re going to see down the road.”

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, a lot of pediatricians shifted to seeing kids outside of their clinics in drive-up tents to try to prevent the virus’ spread. Some are now moving most of their operations inside again, with masks required, along with social distancing and rigorous cleaning and disinfecting of surfaces.

Mack said pediatricians are trying to be as flexible as they can to make people feel comfortable coming back into the office. “It’s not only safe, but it’s safest to get your kid vaccinated and get the well checks done. Telehealth does not accomplish vaccination. If you’re worried about coming in, talk with your pediatrician's office to see what modifications they can make to make you feel as safe as possible.”

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