A post-pandemic drop in kindergarten vaccinations is making public health officials very nervous

The U.S. is falling short of a national goal of 95 percent of kindergarteners getting their four required vaccines. Roughly 250 thousand children are vulnerable to measles as a result, says the CDC.

A small but worrisome decline in kindergarten vaccination rates nationwide that started in the pandemic is continuing, federal health officials warned on Thursday, with covid-related stress on the public health system driving the trend.

The effects of insufficient vaccination rates have become apparent over the last year, with a polio outbreak emerging in New York — the most notable spread of the disease in the U.S. since 1979, the year the country officially eliminated the virus. Meanwhile, several counties in Ohio are still battling an ongoing measles outbreak in which many of the victims have been preschool-aged children. Whooping cough has also made a return in vaccine-hesitant school settings across the country.

The drop in kids getting their shots in kindergarten continues a decline that started in the pandemic. The coverage rates were lowest for poor and rural kids, where parents had the hardest time arranging shots, such as Alaska, Idaho, Minnesota and the District of Columbia.

“We’re seeing a return of diseases,” said infectious disease expert Sean O’Leary of the American Academy of Pediatricians, noting recent polio and measles outbreaks. “This is entirely preventable. These outbreaks harm children and cause significant disruptions in the ability to learn, grow and thrive.”

Back to routine

Still, the report found a 4 to 5 percent drop in vaccine coverage for rural and poor children in that age group, she added, pointing to more disruption caused by the pandemic. Children with private insurance had the best coverage rates for the seven shots recommended for 2-year-olds.

“We are encouraged that as we all return back to routine activities, as we get children back in school, as we get everyone back to in-person learning, that schools will be able to provide the follow-up that’s needed to encourage families to get back up to date,” said Peacock.

Rather than any kind of widespread parental increase in resistance to vaccines spurred by the pandemic, pediatricians are seeing a much more mixed picture overall, with sentiment going in all directions, added O’Leary. “There’s a lot of talk about hesitancy and exemptions and refusing, but we are not seeing those things,” he said. Some parents who had resisted shots are bringing in all their kids now to get caught up.

“There’s probably been some impact of the pandemic on attitudes,” said O’Leary, “but I think it’s a lot more complicated than some of the reports we’ve seen about hesitancy.”

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