The COVID-19 pandemic has changed life as we know it. Many families have done the right thing to prevent the coronavirus’ spread by wearing masks, practicing social distancing and staying home as much as possible, effectively bringing infection rates down. With the rollout and ramped-up efforts to vaccinate Floridians, the state is moving in the right direction to put this pandemic in the past.
However, as part of staying home, many parents have postponed doctor’s visits or opted for virtual care during the pandemic. As a result, many of Florida’s children have fallen behind on their immunizations, with vaccine claims falling between 66 and 86 percent nationwide, according to a recent Avalere study. This is concerning.
The benefit of vaccines, in general, is well documented. Vaccinations have prevented 322 million illnesses, 21 million hospitalizations, and over 700 thousand deaths over the past 20 years in the United States alone. Over that same period, also in the U.S., vaccinations have directly saved patients and health care providers over $295 billion; societal savings are over $1.38 trillion.
Yet today, during a pandemic when staying healthy and away from hospitals is even more important than usual, vaccination numbers are lower than ever. It can be easy to get caught up in an isolation bubble where families assume that all activities, including preventable health care, are too risky to leave the house. However, failing to correlate that the purpose of standard childhood immunizations is to prevent the same devastation we are witnessing today is ironic, to say the least. While the intentions are sincere, the recent data proves that a reminder about community health and other vaccine-preventable diseases is in desperate need.
Vaccines protect our community and future generations by keeping diseases that we have eliminated from making a comeback. What most of us don’t realize is that before the turn of the century, diseases like whooping cough, measles, rubella, and Haemophilus influenza — which is not the same as the flu — struck hundreds of thousands of American infants, children and adults, many of whom died as a result. Thousands of children were also stricken with polio and either died or became permanently paralyzed.
As vaccines were developed and became widely used, rates of these diseases declined. Because of this, many parents today believe that their child is not at risk anymore. This couldn’t be further from the truth. While the likelihood of your child coming down with one of these diseases might be relatively low today, history tells us if we stop vaccinating, we will lose our herd immunity.
Hailed as one of the greatest medical achievements of modern society, vaccines are critical to achieving herd immunity — especially as the safest and quickest means. Herd immunity reasons that when everyone who can receive immunizations in a community does so, they not only protect themselves, they help to protect others who cannot be vaccinated, such as newborns and those with compromised immune systems.
History tells us that if we stop vaccinations for these diseases, they will return. If there is one thing we can all agree on, we do not need another pandemic after this pandemic.
We have to ensure we’re physically going to the doctors’ office to receive essential services like vaccinations. Since the beginning of the pandemic, in-person doctors’ office visits have declined by 69 percent, yet doctors are doing everything at their disposal to keep offices low-risk. Precautions include an increase in sanitation, separate waiting rooms for sick patients, and limited appointments to reduce crowding.
While we are desperate for one vaccine, we are neglecting to acknowledge the significance of others. Whether your child is attending school in-person, going back to daycare, staying home, or headed back to college during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is more critical now than ever before to make sure your child’s immunizations are up-to-date to ensure they stay healthy, and to also protect everyone around them. I urge you to schedule your in-person appointment today.
Dr. Lisa A. Gwynn is the president of the Florida Chapter, American Academy of Pediatrics and associate professor of Clinical Pediatrics and Public Health Sciences at the University of Miami.