Doctors in Virginia are seeing a significant drop in children’s vaccination rates as the coronavirus pandemic continues., and they are warning that could make the state vulnerable to preventable infectious disease outbreaks in the future.
The Virginia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics conducted a survey of more than 100 pediatric providers in the state and found the pandemic is having a significant impact on how many vaccinations doctors have given children. In one example, the number of measles, mumps and rubella vaccines given to infants dropped 30% from March to April.
Dr. Douglas Mitchell, a pediatrician in Virginia Beach and the medical director of the Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters Medical Group, said the youngest children are the most at risk.
“The two, four, and six month-olds, particularly those that are younger than a year, are most vulnerable. They’re most susceptible to illnesses, diseases that have potentially devastating outcomes,” Douglas said in an interview. “[But as a medical community] we have done a very good job of nearly eradicating some of those illnesses, preventing deaths and preventing complications from those illnesses.”
Douglas explained that as more children miss vaccines over time, a community can lose its “herd immunity,” meaning most of the population is immune or otherwise protected from the illness.
“Twenty five years ago, we started using an Influenza Type B vaccine, when I first finished my training. I was early in my career, and I saw severe infections, meningitis complications, brain damage, and hearing loss due to that infection on a weekly basis before we started using the vaccine,” Douglas said. “We don’t see that infection much at all anymore, my younger colleagues have never seen that infection so that’s that’s the impact we can make with vaccines.”
Even during normal, non-pandemic times, areas across the country have seen outbreaks of diseases like measles and other widely eradicated illnesses. Virginia has seen small outbreaks of whooping cough and measles in the past few years.
“But it’s significantly worse for communities that are under immunized,” he said. “That’s why there is also the emphasis on getting adolescents re-immunized [with booster shots]”
Douglas said social distancing should keep little ones safe from communicable disease like whooping cough or chicken pox fornow. But his concern is that when social distancing restrictions are eased, the state could see outbreaks of illnesses that have been mostly eradicated for years.
He explained that families should feel safe continuing to see their pediatricians for regular checkups because practices around the state are taking a lot of different precautions.
“We are making our offices safe, first, just by the screening and asking questions before patients come in,” Douglas said. “We want to know if you’re sick in the house before you arrive so we can handle you appropriately, so we can isolate you from other people, so we can put a mask on you or anybody that might be sick. So we can do those things before you even walk in the building.”
Some offices are instructing families to wait in their cars and call the office when they arrive. That way they can go straight into the check-up without spending time with or interacting with other families in the waiting room.
Some practices are separating well visits and sick visits into two seperate buildings. Others are separating them by time, doing well visits in the morning after the office has been cleaned overnight, for example, and sick visits in the afternoon.
He noted that children who are dealing with chronic illnesses should also maintain their care schedules and go in to see their doctors when they need to.
“It’s safe, don’t delay care when you need care,” Dr. Douglas said simply.