Health awareness

Vaccines aren’t virtual

The importance of childhood well visits to prevent certain infectious diseases during the pandemic

September 8, 2020

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by Nick Kartsonis, SVP clinical research, vaccines and infectious disease

Bringing your child to the doctor’s office – a once regular occurrence and important action for parents – has been put on the back burner due to concerns arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), about 70-80% of children were missing their routine well visits in late April, an unexpected and truly unfortunate consequence during this unprecedented time.

In my role as a parent, I recognize how challenging this time has been on families. However, through my role in clinical vaccine research, I also understand the impact of this downward trend and the importance of these pediatric well visits and the preventative care administered. Even with the positive strides to adopt telehealth services, the reality remains: vaccines cannot be administered virtually. As a result, the drop in in-person appointments has resulted in one of the lowest levels of childhood routine immunization in the past 40 years. And while we work to adapt to life during the pandemic, one of the best things parents can do right now to help safeguard their family against vaccine-preventable diseases is to make sure their children (and adult family members) are up to date with their recommended vaccination schedules.

Highly contagious diseases lurk in the shadows

As states return to school both in-person and virtually in the coming weeks, very serious, highly contagious diseases lurk in the shadows. Children and infants who are not up to date on their vaccinations can be more vulnerable, and contact with others — whether through school, day care, or increased interaction in public — opens up the risk for outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases. Serious diseases may find their way back into our communities at rates not seen in decades. 

Importantly, vaccines against these diseases not only protect those vaccinated; they also provide protection to others through ‘herd immunity.’ In fact, many of these vaccine-preventable diseases rely on herd immunity to help protect those not yet or unable to be vaccinated, especially infants or those with compromised immune systems. Without a re-energized effort to administer these catch up vaccinations and maintain regular pediatric well visits, this herd immunity is weakened, jeopardizing the health of our children and communities. In living through the COVID-19 pandemic, we are reminded of the importance of taking individual action and doing all we can to help prevent the spread of infectious diseases. Scheduling well visits and educating ourselves on the impact and symptoms of vaccine-preventable diseases can help drive down risk in our communities.

Path forward for catch-up vaccinations and staying on schedule

Fortunately, pediatricians have already begun implementing a wide variety of system level strategies recommended by the AAP and U.S. Centers for Disease Control to reach the children who have missed well visits and are not up to date on their scheduled vaccines. These range from conducting home appointments and creating drive-through services, to utilizing state-based information systems to track potential gaps in care. Clinics have also begun to reopen and return to regular hours, with over 80% offering immunization services, thereby demonstrating capacity to deliver recommended vaccinations and catch-up vaccinations for children who may have missed them due to the pandemic.

With physicians and clinics employing these new measures to ensure in-person pediatric vaccinations and well visits can continue, parents and caregivers are now responsible for making the decision to resume these appointments and stay current on the latest guidance around vaccine-preventable disease. It is essential now more than ever for an open dialogue between parents/caregivers and physicians to determine the right plan to keep families on schedule and up to date with their pediatric vaccinations.

Life as we once knew it has changed. However, the one thing that hasn’t changed is putting our communities, our families, and especially our children, first.

Stay safe.