According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly a quarter of a million preschoolers are vulnerable to measles due to a drop in vaccination coverage during the pandemic.
The CDC found in a report released Thursday that 93% of kindergarten children were up to date with the state-mandated vaccines in the 2021-22 school year, down 2% from 2019-20.
“While this may not sound significant, it means that nearly 250,000 kindergarten children may not be protected against measles,” said Dr. Georgina Peacock, director of the CDC’s Division of Immunization Services, during a call with reporters Thursday.
“And we know that measles, mumps and rubella vaccine coverage for preschoolers is at its lowest in over a decade,” Peacock said.
The CDC recommends vaccinations for measles, mumps, and rubella, as well as diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough vaccines for children up to age 6; chickenpox and polio. States generally require these vaccinations for children entering kindergarten. Measles, mumps and rubella immunization coverage was 93.5% in the 2021-22 school year, below the 95% target for outbreak prevention.
An ongoing measles outbreak in Columbus, Ohio has spread to 83 children, 33 of whom have been hospitalized. None of the children died. The overwhelming majority of children, 78, were unvaccinated.
“These outbreaks harm children and cause significant disruption in their ability to learn, grow and thrive,” said Dr. Sean O’Leary, who chairs the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on Infectious Diseases. “This is alarming and should be a call to action for all of us.”
The CDC report examined whether the kindergarteners had received the second dose of their measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine. Two doses are 97% effective at preventing disease, and one dose is about 93% effective, according to the CDC.
Measles is a highly contagious virus that spreads when you cough or sneeze, polluting the air where the virus can linger for up to two hours. It can also spread when a person touches a contaminated surface and then touches their eyes, nose, or mouth.
The virus is so contagious that a single person can spread the virus to 90% of people in their area who don’t have immunity from vaccination or a previous infection, according to the CDC.
Measles can be dangerous for children under the age of 5, adults over the age of 20, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems.
About 1 in 5 unvaccinated people who contract it are hospitalized. About 1 in 20 children will get pneumonia, and one in 1,000 will have brain swelling, which can lead to disability. Symptoms begin with a high fever, cough, runny nose, and red eyes. Two to three days later, white spots appear in the mouth and a rash breaks out on the body.
CDC officials said disruptions in schools and the health system during the Covid pandemic are largely responsible for the drop in vaccination rates.
“We know the pandemic has really disrupted health systems,” Peacock said. “Part of it is that visits from healthy children may have been missed and people are still trying to catch up on those visits from healthy children.”
“We know schools have had a lot of things to focus on, and in some cases they may not have been able to collect all of this documentation about vaccinations,” Peacock said. “Or because kids have been at home for much of the pandemic, that may not have been the focus while they were focused on testing and doing all the other things related to the pandemic.”
In a separate report released Thursday, the CDC found that coverage for the so-called combined seven-vaccine series in children born in 2018-19 actually increased slightly by age two, compared to children who were born in 2016-17.
This series of seven vaccines includes vaccines against measles, chickenpox, polio, hepatitis B, Streptococcus pneumoniae, Haemophilus influenzae or Hib, as well as diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough.
However, the CDC found that there were large income and racial disparities. Immunization coverage fell by up to 5% during the pandemic for people living below the poverty line or in rural areas. Black and Hispanic children had lower vaccination rates than white children.
O’Leary said that while misinformation about vaccines is a problem, the vast majority of parents still get their children vaccinated. He said inequality is the bigger problem.
“The things that we really need to focus on are access and child poverty,” O’Leary said.