As a result of COVID-19, routine childhood vaccinations have dropped in the United States since May, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While COVID-19 has caused a worldwide pandemic, the lack of vaccinations also can cause other potential disease outbreaks. UPMC experts recommend that parents vaccinate their children to prevent the spread of germs and diseases. Vaccination is more important now than ever before.
In this Q&A, John Williams, MD, chief, and Megan Culler Freeman, MD, PhD, senior fellow, both of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, discuss how not vaccinating children impacts public health and how important vaccinations are, especially during a pandemic.
Q: How does a lack of vaccinations impact the public, especially during a pandemic?
A: The pandemic reminds us of what infectious diseases are capable of. Viruses cause most of the illnesses for which we receive vaccines. Vaccines work in two ways — by providing immunity to the individual against a particular pathogen, and by creating enough immune individuals in the community, or the “herd,” that the pathogen is no longer able to circulate. The last thing we need right now are measles, whooping cough, or flu outbreaks because of missed routine vaccinations.
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Q: What are your biggest concerns around having kids return to school without the proper vaccines? Should parents be concerned?
A: As a pediatrician and a parent, yes, we should all be concerned. Many of the germs that cause severe diseases, like whooping cough and meningitis, are still around in the community. Vaccines prevent disease from these germs, but don’t eradicate the germs. So, if vaccination rates fall, the germs are right there waiting to cause serious infections.
Q: What is UPMC doing to make sure all children who need vaccines get them?
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A: We have made arrangements in all of our UPMC Children’s Community Pediatrics practices to provide routine vaccines safely.
Q: Why do you think vaccination rates among children have declined so sharply since COVID-19?
A: One of the biggest factors for decreased vaccination rates during the COVID-19 pandemic were changes in primary care, particularly during the lockdown phase. Initially, some primary care clinics were not doing well-visits because of parents’ fears of contracting COVID-19 by leaving the house, so some families canceled or postponed their well-child checkups. Pediatricians’ offices are now taking all necessary precautions to keep their staffs and their patients safe from COVID-19. We encourage parents to schedule their children’s well-child checkups and routine vaccinations now.
Q: How much does not having a vaccine for a disease like the measles raise a child’s risk of contracting it?
A: Measles is one of the world’s most infectious pathogens. While SARS-CoV-2 is thought to spread to two or three people for each infected person, measles spreads to 12 to 18 susceptible people. Measles also travels long distances through the air — more than six feet — so it is particularly good at finding susceptible persons. If enough people are not vaccinated to provide “herd immunity,” measles can rapidly amplify and spread, as we’ve seen in recent U.S. outbreaks.
Q: Are some vaccines more crucial or timely than others?
A: We recommend being up to date on all routine vaccinations. In the time of COVID-19, it is particularly important to get the seasonal flu shot, as any respiratory illness will trigger testing and the patient could potentially be quarantined for COVID-19.
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Headquartered in Pittsburgh, UPMC is a world-renowned health care provider and insurer. We operate 40 hospitals and 700 doctors’ offices and outpatient centers, with locations in central and western Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, and internationally. We employ 4,900 physicians, and we are leaders in clinical care, groundbreaking research, and treatment breakthroughs. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside as one of the nation’s best hospitals in many specialties and ranks UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on its Honor Roll of America’s Best Children’s Hospitals.