CDC: Childhood Vaccine Exemption Rates at All-Time High
Whether due to an increase in vaccine hesitancy or access barriers, the pandemic affected childhood routine vaccination, says a new report.
The number of parents opting out of routine vaccines for their children is at an all-time high, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced Friday.
The CDC’s Nov. 10 report found that 3% of children entering kindergarten during the 2022-2023 school year were granted an exemption from one of four key vaccines — the highest exemption rate ever reported in the United States. The overall exemption rate for the previous school year was 2.6%.
While states differ in infectious disease vaccination requirements for attending public and most private schools, they largely include measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR), diphtheria, tetanus, and acellular pertussis (DTaP), polio, and chickenpox. Some states require medical evidence that a child cannot receive a vaccine while others cite religious or other personal concerns regarding vaccines. Of the 3% of kindergarteners granted exemptions, 0.2% were for medical reasons and 2.8% were for non-medical reasons.
Forty-one states saw a rise in exemptions, and 10 states — Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Michigan, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, Utah, and Wisconsin — exceeded 5%. In Idaho, more than 12% of children entering kindergarten had a vaccine exemption in 2022, Today reports.
“This is quite a jump,” said Ranee Seither, a CDC epidemiologist and author of the new report. Three years ago, Seither added, only two states had an exemption rate of more than 5%.
The report says one factor that might be contributing to the decline includes pandemic-era barriers to care that have persisted. As of the 2022-2023 school year, vaccination coverage among kindergarteners remained at 93%. Prior to the pandemic, the rate consistently hovered around 95%. In general, populations need 95% immunity to protect against viral outbreaks.
“The fact that we haven’t been able to recover is concerning,” said Shannon Stokley, deputy director for science implementation in CDC’s Immunization Services Division. “It means there are children who may be unprotected from very serious diseases.”
Other factors likely impacting vaccine exemption rates include a rise in vaccine disinformation and vaccine hesitancy following the pandemic. Dr. Mysheika Roberts, health commissioner for Columbus Public Health, told Healthline she feared hesitancy to get the COVID vaccine would “have a trickle-down effect and impact vaccination coverage for our children.”
“It is not clear whether [the new data] reflects a true increase in opposition to vaccination, or if parents are opting for nonmedical exemptions because of barriers to vaccination or out of convenience,” says the report. “Whether because of an increase in hesitancy or barriers to vaccination, the COVID-19 pandemic affected childhood routine vaccination.”
Experts Urge Parents to Vaccinate Children
Experts are advising parents to vaccinate their children not only to protect them but to protect others who can’t get vaccinated.
“There are children who are frail, who are immunocompromised, who for medical reasons either cannot take the vaccines or the vaccines don’t work as well,” Dr. Willian Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine and infectious disease at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told Healthline. “We have a responsibility not only to our own children to vaccinate, but we have a responsibility to those children who are too frail to respond to vaccinations. The way we protect them is to have all the rest of us vaccinated.”
In Nov. 2022, a measles outbreak in a Columbus, Ohio, school affected at least 44 children, 17 of whom were hospitalized. The CDC said 94% of the cases were unvaccinated children under the age of five.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) strongly recommends routine vaccinations for children and adolescents, noting that following immunization schedules is the safest, most cost-effective way to prevent disease, disability, and death.
“The infections that these childhood vaccinations are designed to prevent — although largely diminished or absent in the United States — are still out there in the world, and if we do not protect our children, they will remain susceptible, and these other vaccine-preventable diseases will be imported, back to into the United States, infecting our children and spreading among them,” Schaffner said. “So, we will reintroduce these infections and their impact on children here in the United States if we do not keep our protection high.”
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