CORONAVIRUS

Fewer children got routine vaccines in Iowa in 2020, likely a result of the pandemic

Experts worry continued trend could lead to outbreaks of measles, whooping cough, other infectious diseases

The measles, mumps and rubella vaccine at UnityPoint Health pediatrics clinic in Hiawatha on Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015. (
The measles, mumps and rubella vaccine at UnityPoint Health pediatrics clinic in Hiawatha on Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Routine immunizations among school-aged children in Iowa are down more than 20 percent this year, according to a new report.

Vaccines against measles, whooping cough and polio have declined over the past year across the state as a result of the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, which has disrupted back-to-school and other everyday occurrences for many families, according to a new data from Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield.

Officials with the insurance company and other public health experts expressed worry over this trend, saying a continued delay in vaccines could lead to outbreaks of preventable diseases.

“Although we don’t want to cause alarm, we do want to be mindful on what a drop in vaccination levels could mean. If we dip below the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) bench marks for immunity, we could wind up with an epidemic of vaccine-preventable diseases,” Dr. Tim Gutshall, Wellmark’s chief medical officer, said in a statement to The Gazette.

“The good news is the trend can be reversed if parents and guardians ensure these vital immunizations are up to date,” he added.

The state immunization data, which was released on Monday, was part of a larger report from the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association to analyze the pandemic’s implications for routine immunizations nationwide.

According to their report, children in the United States are on track to miss as many as 9 million vaccination doses by the end of 2020, which is a 26 percent decline from the year before.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Forty percent of parents and legal guardians in the national report say their children missed their vaccines because of the pandemic.

Most vaccines were postponed by parents during two specific time periods, per the report. The first delays occurred in March through May, when the pandemic was first appearing in the United States. The second drop in vaccine administration happened in August, many school districts across the country were shifting to virtual learning.

Up to 26 percent drop in vaccines this year

The report analyzed claims data from Wellmark and Blue Cross Blue Shield members of vaccination doses delivered between January and September 2020. Those findings were compared to the same time period in 2019.

According to data on vaccine doses in Iowa, the MMR vaccination to protect against measles, mumps and rubella has dropped about 21 percent from 2019 among Iowa children up to the age of 10.

The DTaP vaccine, meant for diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough, saw the biggest drop with nearly 24 percent decline from the previous year.

Polio immunizations declined 23.7 percent among Iowans aged 10 and younger, the findings also reported. Iowa saw worse compliance for this particular vaccination dose than the rest of the country, which reported a 16 percent drop from 2019.

Both MMR and DTaP vaccination doses saw a 16 percent decline nationwide from the previous year.

National data from the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association shows that vaccination rates for MMR and DTaP fall below the herd immunity threshold outlined by the federal CDC, which is a form of protection from infectious diseases if enough of the population is vaccinated.

The herd immunity threshold for the measles and whooping cough vaccines are 93 percent and 92 percent respectively. However, Blue Cross Blue Shield Association officials estimate vaccine rates only will reach 88 percent for the measles vaccine and 79 percent for the whooping cough vaccine by the end of the year.

“It is important for parents and caregivers to understand that vaccines can be delivered safely even during the pandemic,” Wellmark’s Gutshall said in the statement.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

“Iowa health care providers are taking precautions to ensure they can safely continue this essential care. I encourage parents to continue taking their children in for well-child visits and catch up on missed or delayed vaccinations.”

State report finds similar trend across all ages

Wellmark’s findings mirrored findings from a similar report released earlier this year by the Iowa Department of Public Health, which also stated that childhood immunizations have “significantly decreased” throughout the pandemic, leading to increased risk of outbreaks of vaccine preventable diseases.

The state agency’s report — which reviewed immunization administration between mid-March and May 2020 in comparison to the year before — found consistent declines for all non-influenza immunizations for children and adults alike.

Overall, there was a more than 40 percent decline in non-influenza vaccines for all age groups, or a difference of more than 105,000 doses, March through April 2020 and March through April 2019.

Children up to two years of age saw a nearly 30 percent drop in routine immunizations in March and April 2020 when compared to the same months the year before.

According to state immunization data, that age group saw the biggest drop of childhood immunizations across the board — including vaccines for measles, whooping cough, polio and hepatitis B — in March, when COVID-19 cases first began appearing in the state.

Total doses administered to Iowans up to the age of two were nearly 37,000 in March 2020.

Data showed vaccine administration had reached about 43,000 total doses both in March 2018 and March 2019.

Comments: (319) 398-8469; michaela.ramm@thegazette.com

Support our coverage

Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please subscribe. Your subscription will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

Support our coverage

Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please subscribe. Your subscription will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.