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Physicians concerned about drop in immunized people

Child immunization
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Recent reports from the World Health Organization show a decline in immunized children.

The World Health Organization reported last month a decline in the percentage of immunized children across the globe.

The data shows an estimated 25 million children under the age of 1 did not receive basic vaccines last year. That’s the highest number since 2009, and experts believe it’s directly connected to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The decline isn’t limited to children.

“As immunologists, we’re really concerned about the reduction in immunization rates across the world,” said Dr. Avery August, a council member of the American Association of Immunologists.

In the United States, vaccine orders have decreased by 14% in one year, August said. He added that for the measles vaccine, the reduction is roughly 20%.

“That can result in a significant number of individuals who are not immunized against many common infectious diseases, and that would cause a problem,” August said.

He and other immunologists believe the strain that the health care system put on physicians to take care of COVID-19 patients ultimately caused a deferral of routine vaccinations and well visits.

“The pandemic threw a big curveball at us,” said Dr. Stephen Cook, a pediatrician at UR Medicine. “Practices had to slow down care, pull back a little bit, and put visits on hold.”

Cook said at his practice, routine child wellness visits became pivotal in ensuring that children received up-to-date immunizations. However, he said scheduling vaccination appointments outside of those wellness visits became a struggle.

“Trying to fit vaccines into the flow of the office can be a challenge,” Cook said. “With well child visits, that's part of the plan, but adding them on or doing them at additional time is a challenge.”

He partially attributes that problem to staffing shortages.

Cook added that the reduction in vaccine orders by physicians is also due to adults having other locations, like pharmacies or clinics. He also said vaccine hesitancy has become a bigger issue brought on by the pandemic.

“You have people who are very skeptical, not based on science, but based on some misbelief,” Cook said. “It's easier to fool someone than convince them they've been fooled.”

Physicians are also crediting the emergence of old diseases, such as polio and measles, as a direct result of lack of vaccinations in certain communities.

“They can reemerge in communities that are susceptible, and the communities that are susceptible are the ones that aren't immunized,” August said.

A case of poliovirus was discovered in Rockland County last month. Officials confirmed that the infected individual was an unvaccinated man.

“I think it should open our eyes to say ‘alright, let's make sure we are up to date with everything,’ “Cook said.

Both he and August anticipate that numbers will begin to take a positive turn as things steadily return to normal.

Racquel Stephen is a health and environment reporter. She holds a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of Rochester and a master's degree in broadcasting and digital journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.