More than 25% of American infants did not receive their full round of vaccinations. UVA professors say vaccine access is the problem.

CHARLOTTESVILLE – With the pandemic, it’s easy to forget we need vaccines for things other than COVID-19. However, there are still other ailments out there. Additional viruses, diseases and illnesses exist. And a recent study found that more than 25% of US infants are more susceptible to some of those sicknesses. That’s because they either didn’t get the vaccine or didn’t finish the treatment.

This latest study found that 72.8% of infants aged 19-35 months received the full series of the seven recommended vaccines. That fell short of the federal government’s goal of 90%.

So what vaccines are on this list? It includes polio, tetanus, measles, mumps and chicken pox.

UVA staffers warned that if you don’t finish the vaccine series, it leaves children at increased risk of infection, illness and death. It also reduces the herd immunity of the entire population, allowing diseases to spread more easily.

Why Aren’t They Vaccinated?

Those less likely to complete the vaccine series included three main demographics. They were African-American infants, infants born to mothers with less than a high school education and infants in families with incomes below the federal poverty line.

Dr. Rajesh Balkrishnan, of UVA’s Department of Public Health Sciences, explained the hesitancy in the groups.

“Access is still a big issue,” Balkrishnan said.

Yes, federal programs exist, like Vaccine for Children. That provides free vaccines for uninsured, underinsured and Medicaid-eligible children. However, external financial costs often arise with vaccine appointments.

“There is still, sometimes, a physician visit fee, which is charged, to take the child and get them vaccinated,” Balkrishnan said. “So if you don’t have Medicaid insurance, for example, you have to think about the $150 or $200 it takes to get your child vaccinated.”

Balkrishnan called for changes to make vaccines more accessible to American children.

“In all the other developed countries except the United States, healthcare for children is free and covered by the government,” Balkrishnan said. “We are the only [developed] country which doesn’t have this.”

The Problems

Many 2020 and 2021 health reports centered around COVID. However, Balkrishnan noted that measles outbreaks still occurred in Virginia and across the United States. 

The CDC found that in 2019, people in 31 states experienced measles. There were 1,282 individual cases of measles, the highest count since 1992. In 2020, the number of measles cases dropped down dramatically to 13 cases in eight jurisdictions.

“We really need to have better healthcare for our children,” Balkrishnan said. “We need to make sure all children have access.”

Another issue arose with vaccination misinformation, which especially ran rampant during the pandemic.

“A lot of decisions being made by people [are] not based on science, but based on hearsay and a lot of false stories and urban myths and legends that have been propagated,” Balkrishnan said. “The studies that were used by anti-vaxxers to show that vaccines are not safe or whatever, they have all been debunked.”

In 2010, England’s General Medicine Council disbarred the doctor responsible for claiming an unfounded vaccine-autism link.

The researcher encouraged taking children to get their vaccines. He further expressed that the regular set of childhood immunizations have been around for years and are safe and effective.

“Vaccines are sort of our only defense against many of these deadly infectious diseases,” Balkrishnan said. “You can ask any of your grandparents or anyone else who had conditions like the chicken pox or things like that. They are brutal.”

“Stuck at about 75%”

“We have made some progress with immunizations over the past decade or so. But we are still not there where most of the other developed countries in the world are,” Balkrishnan said. “Most of the other developed countries are pretty close to 100% with childhood immunizations. And we are stuck at about 75%, which is not very good.”

The study did find a 30% increase in the overall number of infants getting the full vaccine series from 2009 to 2018.

However, disparities in vaccine uptake grew between low-income families and higher-income families during the decade. In 2009, families below the federal poverty line were 9% less likely to get the full vaccine series than families with annual income above $75,000. In 2018, low-income families were 37% less likely to complete the vaccine series.

The study also found that mothers who did not complete high school were almost 27% less likely to have their infants fully vaccinated than moms with a college education. A previous study evaluating 1995-2003 found that mothers with less than a high-] school education were 7.8% less likely to complete the vaccine series.

The study noted that previous research highlighted several reasons for the disparity among the African American population. Those reasons included a lack of access to preventive health care, a lack of trust in the healthcare system and a lack of understanding of the risks and benefits of vaccinations.

America strives for a 90% infant vaccination rate, which is still over 17% away.

“Clearly, this is not a time where we can discount science,” Balkrishnan said. “We have to say there is a reason why science works, why we have perfected medicine, why medicine has evolved to this stage.”

Calling for Change

“We are different from many other countries in the sense [that] we don’t focus enough on prevention. We always focus on curing the illness, if one gets it,” Balkrishnan said. “Hopefully this pandemic has opened our eyes to sort of thinking that, ‘You know what? Maybe we should stay healthy. We should keep our children healthy. We should give them all the protection they need so that they won’t sort of have to get this sick down the road.’”

He urged community leaders to express the importance of health.

“I think we need to do like it’s sort of been done in the COVID pandemic. You know, people have rallied around community-based organizations, around churches, around other areas where people socially aggregate, to sort of tell them, ‘Listen, this is a life-or-death situation, so you better take this vaccine’ type of thing,” Balkrishnan said. “We kind of need to do that with childhood vaccinations as well.”

While researchers will not finalize numbers for 2020 and 2021 infant vaccination rates for a few years, Balkrishnan noted that preliminary results found primary care services severely affected. He also expressed concern that infectious diseases could become more prevalent in the future.

“We know that the vaccine will protect kids against these diseases, which can potentially be life threatening. I think we really, really need to start thinking very hard about how much we truly value our future generations and how much we sort of want to invest in them,” Balkrishnan said. “And we can begin right here by … making sure that every child is vaccinated for these conditions, for which there are safe, effective and free vaccines available.”

Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at amie@couriernewsroom.com

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