In Illinois, routine childhood immunization against diseases such as measles, polio, and whooping cough has declined during the pandemic – a decline that comes as polio reoccurs in the East Coast, with pediatricians blaming missed appointments and increased reluctance to vaccinate.

Approximately 89% of Illinois preschoolers were vaccinated against measles, mumps, polio, rubella, chickenpox, diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough in the 2020-2021 school year, according to Illinois State Board of Education data obtained by the Tribune through the Freedom of Information Act Requests . This is a decrease from around 94% to 96% in each of the previous four school years.

For the 2020-2021 school year, vaccine data was sent to 124,701 preschoolers in Illinois, meaning that if 89% were vaccinated, it’s possible that nearly 14,000 were not vaccinated.

“It’s really disturbing,” said Dr. Kathy Shepherd, pediatrician at Kids First Pediatric Partners in Skokie. “As paediatricians, we have all seen children with vaccine-preventable diseases. Sometimes I think people have a false sense of security with their children’s health when they think it can’t happen to them. “

Illinois State Board of Education spokeswoman Jackie Matthews also called the decline “very disturbing,” saying in an email: “Routine childhood immunization protects students from preventable diseases that can lead to serious complications and even d*ath.”

The slide follows the nationwide and global pandemic trend. In the 2020-2021 school year, the percentage of preschoolers across the country who kept their routine childhood vaccinations dropped according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, by about 1 percentage point.

Worldwide, 25 million children missed one or more doses of the diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine in 2021, according to the World Health Organization and UNICEF – the largest sustained decline in childhood immunization in this generation.

Pediatric leaders warn that the consequences could be dire.

“We don’t want to see major childhood epidemics across the country, especially in light of these capacity issues,” said Dr. Frank Belmonte, chief physician at Advocate Children’s Hospital, referring to the emergencies of children with respiratory disease filling children’s hospitals who suffer from also often with staff shortages. “If we can prevent things, we should prevent them and not deal with them after the fact.”

Bucktown’s parent Anne Judge knew she wanted to vaccinate her 1-year-old son James at his recent physical exam.

He cried when he took five blows to the thighs one after the other because of hepatitis A; flu; injection for measles, mumps and rubella; pneumococcal vaccine; and a vaccine to protect against chickenpox. But the judge felt it was worth it.

A few months earlier, James had been rushed to the hospital after having had a febrile convulsion, when the child was convulsing due to a fever. It ended well, but the experience strengthened the judge’s desire to get her son vaccinated whenever possible.

“As a parent, you go through something like this and you think, ‘It’s okay, I’ll do my best to make sure I never go back to that hospital again,’ she said. “If that includes getting vaccinated and 30 seconds when my baby is uncomfortable, so be it.”

Worries about parents making decisions.

“It is not only endangering your baby, but also my endangering my baby,” she said.

Many people may think that diseases like polio, measles and whooping cough are relics of the past. But this summer, an unvaccinated person in Rockland, New York, became paralyzed with polio, and the polio virus was found in sewage there and in other New York counties.

“The generation that remembers polio is much older now. Without this lived experience, it can be difficult to appreciate what these viruses can do, ”said Carol Pandak, director of PolioPlus at Evanston-based Rotary International, which aims to eradicate polio worldwide.

Measles continues to appear sporadically in the Chicago area as some parents objected to having their children vaccinated against it. In 2019, nine measles cases were reported in Illinois, including Cook County. Measles can lead to complications including pneumonia and cerebral edema. It can spread through the air when a person coughs or sneezes, or through contact with the mucus or saliva of an infected person.

Some vaccine preventable diseases are much more common and are fatal every year, even in the United States

About half of the children who suffer from whooping cough must be hospitalized, and up to 20 children a year in the US die from the disease. Children should receive doses of pertussis vaccine at 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, 15 to 18 months and 4 to 6 years of age, followed by another vaccine at 11 to 12 years of age. age.

Along with his mother Anne, one-year-old James Judge receives his 12-month vaccine pack from Nurse Meghan Elwess of Lurie Children's Primary Care - Town & Country Pediatrics on October 18, 2022 in Chicago.

At least 200 children in the U.S. died from the flu during the 2019-2020 flu season. Babies can start getting flu shots from 6 months of age.

“We lost patients to vaccine-preventable diseases,” Shepherd said. “When you have this kind of loss, you really take it seriously.”

Pediatricians say the decline in recent immunizations may be due to families leaving visits in the first months of COVID-19. Many parents were afraid or were unable to bring their healthy children to the doctor’s offices for non-urgent matters, such as the annual check-ups, when routine vaccinations are usually performed.

Vaccine percentages may look better in the years to come as children are catching up.

It is also possible that some families are now avoiding routine childhood immunization because of increased reluctance to vaccinate. Before the COVID-19 vaccine, some parents were concerned about vaccination.

When COVID-19 vaccines were released, their safety, development, and effectiveness became a national topic of conversation and debate. This made many people think deeply about vaccines for the first time and made some feel uncomfortable.

“Many issues of vaccine efficacy and safety have been questioned and come to light, resulting in a much greater distrust of vaccines in general,” said Dr. Panorea Mathews-Kukla, pediatrician and head of pediatrics at Duly Health and Care.

Prior to COVID-19, Mathews-Kukla typically signed one or two religious exemptions a year for parents who refused to vaccinate their children.

Since the pandemic, Mathews-Kukla has received one religious waiver application every month.

Illinois law requires students to be vaccinated against certain diseases, such as measles, whooping cough, and chickenpox, or to provide evidence of legal exemption, such as for religious or medical reasons, by October 15 of each year, or at an earlier date designated by their students. School district. If they don’t, they shouldn’t go to school until they meet the requirements.

When parents are concerned about their children’s immunization, Mathews-Kukla tries to answer their questions. Tries to remember that parents try their best for their children.

“In my practice, we accept people who do not want to vaccinate,” said Mathews-Kukla. “I think it is much more important to work with parents and look after these children rather than distract them from medical care.”

Other pediatric practices take a different approach. The Shepherd’s practice, Kids First Pediatric Partners in Skokie, does not work with families who refuse routine vaccinations.

“We think it’s dangerous,” said Shepherd. “We are a practice that is happy to talk to families about questions and concerns they may have about the vaccine, but if they ultimately decide they don’t want their children vaccinated, we’ll recommend them to find another pediatrician because I don’t think we are a good fit for them.

She said her practice has many medically unstable patients.

“I think our families like to know that we are a vaccine practitioner, that they will not be exposed to other families who have unvaccinated children,” she said.

For multiple routine immunizations in the 2020-2021 school year, approximately 1.2% of Illinois preschoolers had religious leave; less than 1% had sick leave; and more than 4% were unvaccinated for no approved reason. About 4% did not meet the requirements for vaccination or physical examination, but went to school remotely due to concerns over COVID-19. It is possible that some of these 4% were vaccinated but did not have the required physical examination.

In the previous school year, a similar proportion of preschoolers had religious and medical exemptions, but the proportion of children not vaccinated for no valid reason was around 3%, and there was no data tracking how many non-compliant preschools were distant.

Doctors hope to improve results in the 2021-2022 school year as soon as this data is available.

Dr. Nina Alfieri said pediatricians and families are in a “catch-up period”. Many pediatric offices allow parents to make an appointment just for immunization if they have missed vaccinations and do not want to wait until their child’s next annual checkup to catch up.

“Most families, once they return to school and most places are exposed, most families are very vigilant about coming for tests and catching up on missed vaccinations,” said Alfieri, pediatrician at Lurie Children’s.

Doctors say children who miss vaccinations should return for them as soon as possible. Vaccines should be given on schedule, but “it’s better to be vaccinated than never,” said Mathews-Kukla.

Elmhurst’s mother, Heidi Rahn, recently took her one-year-old son to five vaccinations during a one-year checkup. He cried when poked, and Rahn gave him Tylenol after visiting for any persistent pain or discomfort.

But he slept well and played normally the next day.

“Vaccination has always been something for us, which – the traditional and COVID – is a really simple way for us to do our part and stay safe, but also keep our community safe,” she said.

lschencker@chicagotribune.com

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