The COVID-19 pandemic has proven the dangers of infectious disease, even with the technologies of modern medicine and the relatively good access to healthcare that we have in the United States. But the best way to prevent other infectious diseases that cause disabilities and deaths are being underused.
Only about 73% of children under age 2—only three in four—are getting all the vaccinations they should receive. This low rate is despite the goal of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to reach a 90% immunization rate by 2020. That goal had been set in 2010 as part of the Healthy People 2020 initiative.
The 73% immunization rate is based on statistics from 2018, before the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has lowered the rate of immunization in children (and adults, for that matter) even further.
The study found that children in families who are poor are less likely to be vaccinated, as are those whose mothers did not graduate high school. There are also racial disparities in vaccination rates. African American children are less likely to have had all their shots than White children. On the other hand, Hispanic children are more likely to have had all their shots than White children.
The vaccines that children should receive in their first 24 months include those against the diseases diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough (pertussis), polio, measles, mumps, rubella (German measles), hemophilus influenza B, hepatitis B, chicken pox (varicella), and pneumococcal pneumonia.
These vaccinations are often called the combined 7-vaccine series, because vaccines against these 11 diseases have been combined into seven vaccines. Some of these vaccines require multiple doses over the course of several months. You can see the schedule of vaccines at the American Academy of Pediatrics’ HealthyChildren.org page.
These diseases are not just “childhood diseases” that are part of growing up. They carry a risk of serious illness and disability. For example, measles can lead to a swelling of the brain called encephalitis that can leave a child deaf or with an intellectual disability. Having your child vaccinated against chicken pox (varicella) means that he or she will not get shingles when they are older. Even if these diseases leave no lasting complications, a child who comes down with a disease like pneumonia causes anxiety, medical bills, and missed work on the part of the parents.
Getting your child vaccinated protects the child, but it also protects you and everyone else in your community. You may have heard the term “herd immunity” recently in relation to COVID-19. Herd immunity means that nearly everyone in a population is immune to a specific disease. Because of this widespread immunity, very few people get infected, and the disease can’t be passed from person to person. This means that even the people who are most at risk, like babies who haven’t been vaccinated and people who have poor immune systems, are protected.
Herd immunity requires that a large percent of the population, 705 to 90% depending on the disease, have antibodies. It can be achieved if nearly everyone has become infected by a disease and their immune systems can create antibodies against it. But a better way to achieve this immunity is through vaccination, which makes the body make antibodies with a far lower risk that an infection.
There have been several outbreaks of measles—which is far more contagious than COVID-19—in the United States, with a large one in 2019. In 2014, one child with measles who visited Disneyland in California caused measles cases in seven states, and in Mexico, and Canada.
There are two important factors that are causing the immunization rates for children to be so low. One is the persistence of myths and misinformation about the safety of vaccines. There is always the possibility that a child can have a severe reaction to a vaccine, but the risks of death and disability from the disease far outweigh the exceptionally low risk of this happening.
Vaccines are not linked to autism. This misinformation has been around for many years and dozens of very large studies done around the world have disproven any link between vaccines and autism.
Another factor is the costs of healthcare in the United States, which may prevent some parents from bringing their children to the doctor for vaccinations. The good news is that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a program called Vaccines for Children. This federally funded program provides vaccines at no costs for children who might otherwise not be vaccinated because of a family’s inability to pay. However, although the vaccine is free, there might be other fees connected to the doctor’s visit.
Even so, there are still ways to get your child vaccinated if money is a problem. Appointments for vaccinations are available at low or no cost at Community Health Centers. Pharmacies are also a good resource for routine childhood vaccinations.
The bottom line is that vaccines are safe and they prevent infectious diseases.