Experts see 'very concerning' decrease in number of kids who are fully vaccinated

August 20, 2022
Dr. Allison Eckard stands at a podium while Dr. Edward Simmer, seated, listens.
Dr. Allison Eckard speaks at MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children's Hospital about the importance of vaccinations as Dr. Edward Simmer, director of the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, listens. Photos by Sarah Pack

During an event at the MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital honoring vaccination heroes – medical professionals and local volunteers who help to ensure their communities are protected – the director of the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control voiced a worry they all share. “I can tell you on a statewide level, we have seen a decrease in the number of children who are fully vaccinated, and that is very concerning for us,” said Edward Simmer, M.D.

Allison Eckard, M.D., division chief for pediatric infectious diseases at the Medical University of South Carolina, said one cause is clear. “The pandemic caused some downstream effects that probably nobody would’ve anticipated. And one of those things is that there are many more people now skeptical of vaccines cause of the misinformation that many people have listened to for the last year and a half. And unfortunately what we have seen now are people hesitant to get all vaccines.” 

Simmer said that could lead to an uptick in preventable illness. “We’ve had cases of measles here in South Carolina; we’ve seen significant outbreaks elsewhere. We just saw a case of polio disease in New York. We thought we had pretty much wiped it out. Fifty, 60 years ago, polio was paralyzing many children. It was a terrible disease, and the vaccine has basically wiped that out. But again, it only works if people get it. And, and you know, that case, the polio we saw in New York, really scares me because that could happen here too.”

Three women and one man sit at a table covered by blue cloth, listening to Youlanda Gibbs, who is standing at a podium. 
Dr. Youlanda Gibbs, CEO and founder of the Palmetto Palace, describes her organization's role in getting people vaccinated against COVID-19.

He called vaccines one of the most important interventions public health officials have. “We should never forget that even in these difficult discussions about vaccines that we’ve heard, vaccines are incredible scientific discoveries; they save lives. They’re incredibly safe,” Simmer said.

“The CDC estimates that just over the past 20 years, vaccinations have prevented more than 20 million children from being hospitalized. As we recognize South Carolina Immunization Awareness Week, I want to encourage everyone to think about how fortunate we are to have access to these great vaccines and the opportunity to make sure that we and our families are protected against infectious disease.”

That passion for the protection people can get from vaccines was clear in the words of every speaker at the event in the MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital. Beth Sundstrom, Ph.D., serves as communication director for the South Carolina Immunization Coalition.

“The coalition unites vaccination champions to implement evidence-based practices and strategies that enhance the uptake of vaccines through action oriented collaboration. Many of us missed crucial vaccines during the pandemic, especially preteens who need protection from meningitis, HPV cancers and whooping cough.So as we prepare for a healthy start to a new school year back to school, vaccinations are more important than ever to get back on track and protect our families and communities,” Sundstrom said.

Alexandra Hayes stands at a podium gesturing. 
Alexandra Hayes, organizing director of the South Carolina Immunization Coalition, prepares to present awards.

Youlanda Gibbs, Ed.D., CEO and founder of the Palmetto Palace, works to protect families and communities, too. She described the moment she realized her organization, which has a mobile health unit, could play a role during the pandemic. 

“I was sitting at home reading numerous articles about how many residents in rural areas of our Tri-county and in South Carolina were struggling to access a vaccine, for some traveling to neighboring cities, without transportation. And for others, public transportation was not an option.” She decided her mobile health unit could fill the void. It did, getting COVID-19 vaccines to people across the state.

Alexandra Hayes, organizing director of the South Carolina Immunization Coalition, shared a bold wish as she prepared to give out awards to vaccination heroes at the Aug. 19 event. “One day, we will live in a world where no child will suffer or die from a disease ever. This is the vision.”

The awards went to four people and one organization.

  • Mary Beattie, RN, was honored for her work promoting HPV vaccination in the Cherokee County School District, earning the honor of Coalition Partner of the Year.
  • Allison Eckard, M.D., was the Advocacy Award winner, a doctor who, in Hayes’ words “never wavered as a physician champion.”
  • Youlanda Gibbs, Ed.D., was the 2022 Leadership Award winner and National Immunization Champion Award winner for Palmetto Palace’s community outreach during the pandemic.
  • Hanahan’s Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department won the Community Collaboration Award for its work vaccinating the public against COVID-19.
  • Beth Sundstrom, Ph.D., earned the Innovation Award for a range of efforts to find the most effective ways to communicate with the public about important issues and use them to drive up vaccination rates statewide.

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