Nonprofit sounds alarm for declining childhood vaccination rates

The Immunization Partnership is sounding the alarm as childhood vaccination rates stagnate across the state.

Representatives for the nonprofit organization paid a visit to Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas last Wednesday, the third day of National Infant Immunization Week, to speak with community members.

It was the third stop on what the nonprofit is calling its “Vaxx Voyage,” an odyssey to eight cities in Texas to raise awareness of a steep reduction in vaccination coverage that threatens to evolve into a full-blown public health crisis.

But it’s not just a health crisis.

Say “kiddo comes home (sick),” said Terri Burke, executive director of the Immunization Partnership. In the best-case scenario, “Mom or Dad is not going to be able to go to work… If people lose work, they lose income. The economic productivity of the whole society is diminished. So, I mean, the effects are just huge.”

Seated around a table in the building’s boardroom, doctors, educators, pharmacists, biomedical researchers, disability advocates and other “vaccine stakeholders” listened as Burke and her colleagues warned that medical misinformation is worming its way into health care policy — a setback Texas can ill afford.

Childhood vaccination rates in the Lone Star State, already among the lowest in the nation, plummeted further during the pandemic as parents and other caretakers avoided doctor’s offices for fear of exposing their children to viral particles. Even though COVID-19 vaccines are now widely available for children 5 and older, rates have shown no signs of recovery, a trend that has medical professionals worried.

Raising her hand during a listening session, Joyce Turner, a registered nurse and vaccine liaison for Lela Pharmacy on the North Side, said she frequently encountered vaccine hesitancy in her day-to-day work. She said religious faith, skepticism about the existence or severity of COVID-19 and fear of so-called “vaccine injury,” or medical problems arising from vaccination, were among the most commonly cited reasons for the stance.

Vaccine hesitancy is particularly pronounced in the San Antonio area. In 2021, only 61.6 percent of 24-month-olds in Bexar County had received all seven vaccines recommended for their age group, including shots for polio, measles, chickenpox and diphtheria, according to an Immunization Partnership news release. The statewide average was 66 percent, according to the release.

“Nothing should prevent us from protecting our children from contracting diseases that can cause serious illness and trigger avoidable outbreaks,” Burke said.

Several such outbreaks have been documented in recent years, illustrating the risk vaccine hesitancy poses to both the individual and the broader community.

Schools are a particular hotbed for disease clusters. In 2019, for example, a number of Jewish educational institutions known as yeshivas were linked to hundreds of measles cases in Williamsburg, Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish community between October and April, prompting New York City officials to order their closure.

One educator at the meeting, Donald Schmidt, assistant superintendent of student, family and community services for Northside Independent School District, said in his 18 years with the district he had witnessed its position on vaccine hesitancy weaken as students began to drop out because of vaccine mandates, costing taxpayers money.

“So, vaccines, you know, we believe in them, but getting the families to do it is another thing,” Schmidt said.

More than 20 of the 285 New Yorkers who had contracted meals as of April 8, 2019, had to be hospitalized. Rather than subsidizing, however, anti-vaccine sentiment is only on the rise, fueled by high-profile senate bills prohibiting mandates. In October, Gov. Greg Abbott even issued an executive order to that effect.

It was no coincidence the meeting was held late April, months before the 88th annual Texas legislative session begins.

“Our state’s health could be in jeopardy if misinformation goes unchecked,” Burke said.

One of her motives for joining the Immunization Partnership six months ago was that she has a 14-year-old granddaughter.

“I don’t want her to go to school with kids who aren’t vaccinated,” she said. “I don’t want her to be put at risk.”

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