Editorial: Vaccination decline in children raises worries

A pediatric vaccine clinic at St. Raphael Academy in Bridgeport in January.

A pediatric vaccine clinic at St. Raphael Academy in Bridgeport in January.

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

The coronavirus pandemic, according to public opinion polls, no longer qualifies as a top concern among many Americans. That honor belongs to inflation, or the economy in general.

Few places retain mask requirements, and whatever holdups people previously had about large public gatherings seem to have gone by the wayside. This has happened even as the case rates in Connecticut have again increased, with testing positivity rates regularly topping 10 percent in the past week.

But the fallout from COVID is not limited to the disease itself, even as the nation marks 1 million deaths. The pandemic arrived during an era of extreme polarization in this country, which has turned what had once been basic public health concerns into political questions. High on the list has been whether to get vaccinated.

There’s enough evidence by now to know that COVID vaccines are safe and effective. They’re not a guarantee against illness, but they do make the worst effects much less likely. Hospitalization and death are less frequent among the vaccinated (and, especially, boosted) than among those who aren’t.

But many people get their medical advice from nonexperts. They trust their gut, or do their own research, or just don’t want to be involved, and as a result have skipped the vaccines. That’s a problem for COVID, but is increasingly becoming a problem elsewhere, too.

According to recently released data from the state of Connecticut, the number of kindergartners in the state who are not in compliance with vaccination requirements has grown in the past year. This isn’t about COVID, but instead about maladies like measles, mumps and rubella, which have mostly been eradicated but only because enough people are protected against them to stop a new spread.

“By releasing this school immunization data, we want to remind parents and the public of the importance of all vaccines, which help make schools safer and reduce the risks associated with these preventable diseases,” Dr. Manisha Juthani, state public health commissioner, said in a news release.

The state last year eliminated a religious exemption for vaccinations, which came despite protests from some parents groups. Doctors and, notably, many religious leaders supported ending the exemption for the purposes of public health.

It’s too soon to know what the effects of that law will be. It’s also not possible to draw a direct line between COVID vaccine hesitancy and a drop in vaccinations for other diseases. But the worry has always been that demonizing vaccines could have repercussions far beyond the coronavirus, and we may be headed toward that point.

It’s also important to note the disruptions that COVID itself may have had on getting vaccinated. For many months, doctors appointments were put off as everyone tried to keep themselves safe. It could be that part of the change is due to delayed appointments.

Still, the worry is significant. An entire era of common childhood illnesses is in our past thanks to the miracle of vaccinations. It is imperative that we not take a step back.

Measles and mumps are not gone, they are just kept under control. If we lose focus, they could come back. We need to ensure that doesn’t happen.