Pediatricians — like us — provide most of the nation’s immunizations, protecting children from diseases like whooping cough, tetanus and measles. We understand how serious and dangerous these illnesses can be but that they are also preventable. Right now, we have grave concerns for what a secondary outbreak could look like on top of the COVID-19 pandemic, unless we act.
Throughout the pandemic, child immunization rates have dropped significantly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that since COVID-19 arrived in the United States, children have missed more than 11 million doses of routine childhood vaccines, including 1.4 million missed doses of measles vaccines.
This puts children, families and communities at serious risk of a secondary outbreak. The measles outbreak from 2014 to 2015 originated from a single exposure at Disneyland in California and affected 125 people. In 2019, New York was a hotspot for a measles epidemic that would infect 1,249 children in one year across 31 states.
Several children from the New York measles epidemic were admitted to my hospital. We remember vividly pediatricians caring for measles-affected children in the pediatric intensive care unit and the heartbreak mothers felt when they understood their children’s pain was preventable. Since measles can cause brain inflammation even years after the first infection, we still don’t fully understand the impact of that outbreak on children.
Even as we await results of data on COVID vaccine in children 12- to 16-years-old and move COVID immunization efforts to younger populations — and as families and communities prepare for a full return to school this fall — it is essential we close the gap on other missed childhood immunizations. To do that, we must urgently reinforce our pediatric immunization infrastructure. The Strengthening the Vaccines for Children Program Act, recently introduced in Congress, will modernize a federal program that is crucial to making sure children can receive vaccines.
This issue is so important that last week, we joined more than 700 other pediatricians from all 50 states to meet virtually with our members of Congress, voicing our concerns and showing our support for the bill.
The federal Vaccines for Children (VFC) program provides vaccines at no cost to both uninsured children and children in Medicaid. The program was created in 1993 and provides vaccines for half of all children in the United States.
And while the program has been very successful, it is coming up on nearly three decades of existence. This legislation would modernize the program and address programmatic barriers that keep pediatricians from being able to participate, making it easier for children to receive the vaccines they need.
The bill would also help pediatricians address questions and concerns from vaccine-hesitant parents, reassuring them about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines and pushing back against the pervasive myths about vaccine safety that thrive on social media. The best place for children to be vaccinated is in their longstanding pediatrician’s office, where a trusted relationship with their care team can build vaccine confidence over time. This legislation would help make sure that pediatricians are able to take the time needed to have these important conversations.
Finally, this bill will provide pediatricians and others the same payment for immunizing children that other physicians receive for vaccinating adults, helping ensure pediatricians — who have faced significant financial challenges throughout the pandemic — can continue to offer these services and children can receive vaccines.
As we continue to confront COVID-19, we cannot miss this important opportunity to support children’s health. Congress must work quickly to advance the Strengthening the Vaccines for Children Program Act. Without these important measures in place, not only will we delay our return to normal, but we will invite another outbreak on top of the pandemic.
Dr. Shetal Shah of New York and Dr. Mona Patel of California are members of the national Pediatric Policy Council. They wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.