Risks for the Entire Herd: Unintended Consequences of COVID-19

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, warns the country is on course for the worst fall we’ve ever experienced from a public health standpoint. COVID-19 continues its deadly march, but now the country will also contend with the flu, which seasonally plagues us every year. But another more deadly concern could strike our children, especially those who have missed their standard childhood and adolescent vaccinations.

In May, the CDC reported declines in orders for routine vaccinations for children, heightened by a decrease in child wellness visits to health care providers. The reduction comes as appointments were canceled during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Dr. Stephen J. Lauer, a pediatrician at a major university hospital, experienced the shift, which could be attributed in part to concerned parents worried about exposing their children to an unsafe environment. “We started seeing a drop in March when the emergency was declared. Pediatricians were forced to cut back on the number of visits for older children as we focused on the two-years-and-younger group so we could get the primary series of vaccinations done. The older kids did not get many visits. Now, we’re trying to catch up on giving all of those vaccinations that were missed,” he commented. “We’re still behind on getting the vaccinations back to where they were prior to COVID. Parents are concerned about the risk of exposing their children to medical care facilities where there will be sick people. In the short term, they’re protecting the family, but an unintended consequence results by opening up secondary issues.”

Dr. Lauer says, not only are parents risking the safety of their children by not getting them immunized, but the entire community can be in danger if we lose “herd immunity,” which can lead to the resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases. Herd immunity refers to a high percentage of the public becoming immune to a disease that spreads through viruses or bacteria by being vaccinated and/or having the illness. This helps ensure that the spread is unlikely from person to person. Scientists believe that if the rates for a particular vaccine dip only about five percent, a community can become vulnerable to an outbreak. Measles, for example, was considered eradicated in the U.S. in 2000, but cases have popped up again. Globally in 2017, the disease killed 110,000 people.
“Measles always comes up to the top of this list because you have to have such a high vaccination rate to maintain herd immunity,” advised Dr. Lauer. “But the story is true for any of the vaccine-preventable diseases such as bacterial meningitis, flu, polio, hepatitis A and B and many others. All of those will surge if the vaccine rate drops and we lose herd immunity.”

According to Dr. Lauer, the bacteria and viruses that cause these diseases still exist, but herd immunity ensures they can’t spread between people. But if vaccinations are missed, there will be outbreaks, not just of measles, but any of the vaccine-preventable diseases. “We will see these diseases spread whereas before it might have been an isolated case because that’s as far as the virus or bacteria could go,” he stated. “You must have a lot of immunity in a community to keep diseases from spreading.”

Dr. Lauer adds it will take the public and parents working together to protect our children. The fear of bringing a child into a medical facility shouldn’t prevent anyone from seeking medical assistance, especially vaccinations. Throughout the nation, expansive protocols have been put into place to ensure the wellbeing of patients. “The office setting is now an even safer place to come and well worth the health benefits for children to come to those visits,” he stated.

Another deadly virus is on the verge of reappearing, and vaccinations are the key to controlling its outcome. “We’re going to have a huge push coming on flu vaccines,” noted Dr. Lauer. “We worry about all these other vaccine-preventable diseases occurring, but we know a combination this winter of the ongoing COVID pandemic with a flu epidemic will be disastrous. People need to be ready and get a flu vaccine as soon as it’s made available.”

Dr. Lauer shared that flu vaccines were accessible around October 1. He also stressed the flu vaccination is designed to prevent serious issues and to give protection from complications requiring hospitalization. It’s no guarantee you won’t get the flu.

Whether you’re sixty, six or six months old, now’s the time to roll up your sleeve and protect yourself and your family. “The biggest fear of the COVID epidemic is that it will lead to the secondary increase in all of the other vaccine-preventable diseases we currently have under control,” commented Dr. Lauer. “We will experience serious health consequences that go with the resurgence of these diseases.” ■

Editor’s note: Always consult your pediatrician to determine medical care appropriate for your child.