LIMA — The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted routine childhood immunizations, one of the unintended consequences of restrictions intended to slow the spread of the virus that may put children at risk for other diseases like measles, polio and whooping cough.
Already, immunizations at Allen County Public Health were down 47% from January to May compared to the same period in 2019, as the health department suspended most services between mid-March and early May.
The health department, which offers childhood immunizations, flu shots and adult travel vaccines along with a host of other services like HIV testing and family planning clinics, is scheduling immunization appointments again.
The World Health Organization warned in April that even temporary disruptions to immunizations could lead to outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases like measles and polio, which could overwhelm hospitals already contending with COVID-19.
By May, WHO and several prominent humanitarian organizations estimated that 80 million children under the age of 1 were at risk in countries where COVID-19 has disrupted immunizations.
Concerns about vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks are not limited to developing nations, either.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report in May found that orders for non-influenza childhood immunizations fell dramatically between late March and early April.
Orders for measles-containing vaccines were also down, although the data suggests children under 24 months old were receiving these vaccines at higher rates the older children, which the CDC said indicates that at least some health agencies are prioritizing immunizations for very young children.
“We worry about the lack of herd immunity, that level of immunity in the population that makes it difficult for some of these infections to spread easily,” said Dr. Tara Smith, a professor of epidemiology at Kent State University.
Among the diseases Smith is most concerned about are measles and whooping cough, a highly contagious respiratory disease that is particularly dangerous for infants.
“If their parents are not vaccinated, that bacterium could be spread from parents to the infant,” Smith said. “It’s not something that we have eliminated from the population.”
Tami Gough, director of prevention and health promotion services for Allen County Public Health, said the health department anticipates immunizations will remain below 2019 numbers for the remainder of the year, as appointments are now required to keep waiting rooms from becoming too crowded.
Allen County Public Health has enacted other safety measures, like locking its front doors to prevent walk-ins and requiring staff to wear masks. Appointments will be spaced out to prevent crowding and allow for disinfecting between appointments, and masks will be available for patients.
“Students needing immunizations for school are strongly encouraged to make those appointments now as space will be more limited than in previous years,” Gough said via email. “We also ask that when students come to the health department, they are accompanied by only one parent and no siblings to be able to practice social distancing.”