Staying on Top of Your Child's Vaccines During COVID-19
Aug 17, 2022 Victoria Pelham
Immunizations have a long history of preventing the spread of dangerous diseases—including measles, whooping cough and polio—and stopping their comeback.
But during the COVID-19 pandemic, childhood vaccination plummeted. Globally, routine childhood vaccination took its largest hit in 30 years in 2021, according to the World Health Organization, leaving 25 million infants without any vaccine protection. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) saw its public vaccine ordering fall by 14% in the 2020-21 school year, with measles vaccines dropping more than 20%.
Declines like these raise the risk of unvaccinated and undervaccinated kids contracting and spreading preventable diseases. Parents can't let vaccinations take a backseat, says Dr. Sharon Wirawan, a pediatrician at Cedars-Sinai. That's even more critical as children head back to school, where germs are easily shared.
Sharon L. Wirawan, MD
Sharon L. Wirawan, MD
"Unfortunately, we are seeing vaccine-preventable illnesses return, such as measles and even polio. Without vaccines, these illnesses can quickly spread in the community and cause outbreaks."
Public health outbreaks aren't the time to let up on your child's vaccines
We know the toll infectious diseases can take, Dr. Wirawan says. Measles, for example, is highly contagious and can cause serious complications, such as pneumonia, blindness and brain inflammation (encephalitis). Mumps can cause deafness and even meningitis. And polio paralyzed more than 15,000 people annually in the U.S. until vaccination effectively eliminated the virus nationwide.
Vaccines are very effective in combating these diseases. Two doses of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine are about 97% effective in preventing measles, according to the CDC.
"Vaccines are one of the biggest parts of pediatrics," Dr. Wirawan says. "They truly do save lives."
Drops in immunizations have been linked to measles and whooping cough outbreaks and could lead to others in the future.
Vaccines work by building herd immunity. A vaccine exposes a person's immune system to bacteria and viruses, teaching the system to fight them off if contracted later. The more people who are vaccinated, the less likely these viruses and bacteria will be prevalent in the community.
Protect your kids—and others—by keeping up with their shots, Dr. Wirawan advises.
You can vaccinate and still stay safe
Fear often keeps parents away from pediatricians' offices during health outbreaks like COVID-19. Dr. Wirawan says parents should continue to stay vigilant but don't need to be afraid.
"The last thing we want as pediatricians is to put our patients and their parents in an unsafe environment," she says.
Doctors' offices are well controlled and have robust safeguards in place to keep patients protected, Dr. Wirawan says. These strategies include frequent sanitizing, masking, physical distancing and temperature checks.
Pediatricians also separate sick children from patients who are coming in for preventive visits. Well-child visits, which include vaccine doses, can give you the chance to bring up any concerns or questions about the latest outbreaks, variants and vaccines, Dr. Wirawan says.
Stick to the public health vaccine schedule
Vaccines are available for 16 diseases for children, including hepatitis, polio; pneumococcal disease (PCV), rotavirus (RV), diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough (DTaP), MMR, and varicella (chickenpox). Dr. Wirawan also recommends that you and your kids get annual flu shots, especially during an outbreak like COVID-19.
That will help keep your child out of a hospital or clinic and narrow down the possibilities if they do get sick.
Make sure you are following the CDC immunization schedule, and don't space out vaccines, Dr. Wirawan says. That way you can limit the number of visits in which your kids are poked and prodded while reducing their exposure to other infectious diseases.
"The way that vaccines are scheduled is the way that they've been studied," Dr. Wirawan says. "You know you're protecting your kids the best when you follow the vaccines as scheduled."
COVID-19 vaccines are part of a comprehensive immunization approach
After thorough pediatric safety reviews, the Food and Drug Administration has authorized emergency use of the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines for children and infants. Public health officials now recommend the shots for everyone 6 months and older.
The expansion affords protection against the evolving disease for vulnerable kids and their loved ones. COVID-19 can cause serious complications in children. With the Omicron variant surge increasing hospitalizations, COVID-19 has become the fifth-leading cause of death for young children 1 to 4 years old and the fourth-leading cause of death in infants under 1.