Kindergarten vaccination rates trend downward as Ohio public health officials fight back
The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said national vaccine rates for young children are down for the third year in a row, and Ohio public health officials paint a similar picture locally.
In a recent summary of vaccination coverage, the CDC yet again cited pandemic-related disruptions as part of the reason for declines in vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR), polio and diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (whooping cough), typically part of the round of vaccines kindergartener’s need to boost their immune system and attend school.
“Vaccination coverage among kindergarten students remains below pre-pandemic levels,” the CDC report stated. “Pockets of undervaccinated children within larger areas of high vaccination coverage can lead to outbreaks.”
In the 2021-2022 school year, vaccine coverage for the kindergarten age group was 93% nationally, with less than 3% of the population claiming an exemption to vaccine use.
This is a decrease from the 2020-2021 school year, where national coverage declined from 95% the year before to 94% in kindergarteners.
The national numbers from 2021-22 showed a nearly 4% increase in children who weren’t caught up on their MMR vaccine, but didn’t claim an exemption to the vaccines.
“As schools return to in-person learning, high vaccination coverage is critical to continue protecting children and communities from vaccine-preventable diseases,” CDC researchers wrote.
The CDC surveyed 92% of the 139,077 kindergarteners in Ohio for their coverage study. Among them, 88% have received two doses of the MMR series, 88.5% have received five doses of the DTAP vaccine, 88.9% their four-dose polio series and 87.9% the two-dose chicken pox (varicella) vaccine.
Local public health officials have been working to encourage parents to get back on schedule with vaccinations, to avoid bigger societal implications.
“We’re at risk of losing our herd immunity for these diseases with less people vaccinated,” said Dr. David Margolius, director of the Cleveland Department of Public Health.
Though misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine fueled movements to avoid vaccines, public health leaders say the decline in vaccination was caused by pandemic closures and less in-person interaction with students and parents as COVID-19 took hold.
As students return to in-person schooling with COVID-19 regulations easing in the state, doctors and nurses are doing what they can to bring people back to up to date and answer their questions about the long-standing childhood vaccinations.
“There are diseases that, in my life and training, I haven’t seen, and that’s because of the vaccines,” said Dr. Miller Sullivan, Franklin County Public Health medical director and pediatrician with Central Ohio Primary Care. “Most people (in the United States) today have not seen the measles, most physicians have not seen measles, but there are severe mortality rates for those diseases in other countries.”
Franklin County is seeing results from the declines already, with an ongoing measles outbreak that the public health department said will hospitalize 1 in 5 unvaccinated people in the U.S. if they contract the disease.
Vaccinations are important for children so they can build immunity with little risk of major sickness, and medical professionals who are treating kids know how impactful a sickness like whooping cough can be.
Lisa Horstman, a registered nurse and vaccination coordinator for Allen County Public Health, watched an infant suffer from the disease and it stays with her as she does her work educating the public.
“(The child) was turning blue, they were having trouble getting the phlegm out,” Horstman said. “It was enough to make an impact on me, and I think everyone involved.”
Health departments across the state are working on “multi-pronged” strategies as they staff clinics for no-cost vaccines and work to educate residents on the benefits of immunizations.
“We’ve been vaccinating for decades for these diseases and it’s proven that those vaccines stave off diseases for those kids,” said Dr. Eric Zgodzinski, health commissioner for the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department. “As we start seeing COVID kind of in the rearview mirror, there’s other diseases that we need to remember are around.”
For Horstman, trust is a big part of the education process when talking to parents about vaccinations.
“We’ve talked about really listening to the concerns,” Horstman said. “At the same time, we use that nursing best practice of sending reminders to families when it’s time for the next vaccine.”
Campaigns for vaccinations in schools, along with wraparound services that bring nurses to schools and provide care through schools, are also ways the medical community is bringing vaccinations to the students, rather than waiting for them to enter a doctor’s office.
“I try and meet people where they’re at,” Margolius said. “It’s a matter of getting the systems back up and running and we do need to be innovative and come up with new models of care.”