Health officials warn a lag in childhood vaccinations during the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to outbreaks of other preventable diseases after school starts in the fall.
Routine vaccinations dropped dramatically early in the pandemic, and although they started picking up last summer, many children and teens still need their shots, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found in a recent report. Delays may result in outbreaks of illnesses, including measles, mumps and whooping cough.
“We’ve been able to largely ameliorate many diseases because of vaccinations,” says Dr. David Lechner, vice president of health care delivery and chief medical officer of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana (BCBSMT). Because of successful immunization efforts, he says, much of the nation and many new doctors have never experienced the devastation diseases such as diphtheria, polio and measles can cause or recognize them when they reemerge.
“We lose that perspective,” says Lechner, an obstetrician and family doctor. “We’ve been lulled into a sense of security that it is okay to not immunize, which is simply not true.”
To improve vaccination rates, BCBSMT is collaborating with public health agencies and community organizations to bridge immunization gaps, no matter health coverage. The Caring Foundation of MontanaSM, supported by BCBSMT, and its Care Van program are scheduling back-to-school immunization events for later this summer or the beginning of the school year.
“While the Care Van was grounded for the 2020 back-to-school and flu immunization seasons, we are back on the road in full force and looking forward to traveling the state to raise immunizations rates,” says Kamille Kirchberg, Care Van program administrator. “As always, the Care Van remains committed to vaccine equity.”
The program has provided more than 25,000 free or reduced-cost vaccinations since 2014. BCBSMT in 2018 launched its nonprofit Caring Foundation to improve vaccination rates and offer access to other health services to rural and underserved Montana populations.
“With most schools planning to open in person this fall, being up-to-date on school required immunizations is extremely important,” Kirchberg says. “For those 12 years or older, being fully immunized for COVID-19 will help keep outbreaks at bay this fall, too.”
The CDC said in its report that preventing new outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases “requires a consolidated and coordinated effort among multiple partners to promote catching up and staying up to date on routine vaccinations for children of all ages.”
Lechner agrees, adding that higher immunization rates will protect everyone from disease.
“Vaccinations are foundational and fundamental to preventive medicine,” he says, adding the HPV vaccine, for example, can prevent cancer-causing infections and precancers. “Immunizations are key prevention measures, which are the basis for what we do: Prevent disease.”