Numbers don’t lie: Get vaccinated to protect your family 

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Recently, news stories warning of a so-called “tridemic” have made headlines to alert families about a combination of influenza (flu), Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), and Covid-19 striking communities at once and overwhelming hospital systems nationwide. 

In Minnesota, hospitals endured a surge of RSV and flu cases in November and December last year. During that time—and also as we enter 2023— Covid remains a public health threat.

As a pediatric critical care physician, I see firsthand the pain, trauma, and emotional toll children with RSV, flu, Covid, and other preventable diseases endure. 

Think about this for a moment: In the late 1940s, the polio outbreak disabled more than 35,000 people annually in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But, through the polio vaccine, the U.S. was able to get rid of polio in the 1970s. 

Then, during the summer of 2022, a man in Rockland County, New York—a county that has low polio vaccination rates—tested positive for polio and suffered paralysis as a result. Yes, polio cases like this one are extremely rare. But it should serve as a wake-up call for families as vaccination rates for preventable diseases have declined since the Covid pandemic.

Last July, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that the pandemic has fueled the largest continued backslide in vaccinations in three decades, and 25 million infants worldwide recently have missed out on life-saving vaccines, according to the organization. At the largest pediatric health system in the state, Children’s Minnesota, we have seen these numbers decline firsthand in our communities.

This decline in vaccinations is unfortunate, given the enormous impact immunizations have had on children’s health. Indeed, disease prevention by vaccination is one of the greatest public health achievements of the last century. 

Sadly, however, accepting vaccines has been increasingly challenged by individuals and groups who question their benefits. More people are requesting alternative vaccination schedules, postponing or declining vaccination altogether. 

Vaccine hesitancy

The term vaccine hesitancy has emerged to express the spectrum of parental attitudes toward vaccines. Fortunately, most vaccine-hesitant parents are responsive to vaccine information, consider vaccinating their children, and are not opposed to all vaccines. 

Parents must understand that vaccine development is a long and arduous process, often lasting many years and involving a combination of public and private partnerships. The current system for developing, testing and regulating vaccines requires that the vaccines demonstrate safety and efficacy before licensure, and that long-term safety is monitored. 

As science and technology have advanced, the speed of vaccine development has increased. Nowhere has this been more clear than in the development of vaccines against Covid-19. What has stayed the same, though, is the strict regulation and adherence to safety.

There is, however, a disturbing trend that has reared its ugly head—the deliberate spreading of misinformation about vaccines by those opposed to vaccination. This is often targeted at specific populations. 

I saw this firsthand during the measles outbreak in Minnesota in 2017 when the Somali population was deliberately targeted. Once again, misinformation has erupted during the pandemic with an explosion of disinformation about Covid and the Covid vaccines.   

Curbing Covid-19

Recent Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) data show about 10% of the state’s entire Black population are up-to-date on their Covid vaccines compared to more than 20% of White Minnesotans.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends all eligible children ages six months and older get the Covid vaccine. According to MDH public data, just an average of 8% of children ages six months through 17 across Minnesota are up-to-date on their Covid vaccines. As a pediatrician, I only have one question about this alarmingly low vaccination rate: How is this possible?

Misinformation, rumors, and outright lies have circulated about Covid and its vaccine since the onset of the pandemic nearly three years ago. At the same time, justified concerns based on the atrocities of the Tuskegee experiment, long-standing inequities in health care, and centuries-long racism have sown further doubts about the Covid vaccine. 

Nevertheless, the Covid vaccine and boosters are the most powerful tools to protect our children against this virus. In addition, it is proven safe and effective at helping prevent deaths and reducing serious illness from Covid for eligible children and adults.

Every family can do their part. An excellent first step is to go on the State’s Covid response website and check out its vaccine connector tool to get started.

Fighting the flu 

In one week alone in the United States in December 2022, nine children died from the flu. At least 30 kids have died nationwide so far during this most recent flu season. 

Numbers don’t lie. Data shows 80% of children who die from the flu were not fully vaccinated. This is why everyone older than six months should get a flu shot every year. Kids ages eight and younger who get the flu shot for the first time need two doses given a month apart. Remember, it takes about two weeks after the shot to build immunity.

The CDC says this year’s flu vaccine formulation is a good match to the circulating viruses causing the flu. If your kids still need their flu shots, MDH has convenient resources online to help find authorized vaccination locations and free or low-cost vaccines for children.  

Kick off a healthy new year

January 2023 can be a fresh start to a healthy year for families across Minnesota. This is a great time to get your child up-to-date on their vaccines. 

Schedule the flu or Covid shot. If you haven’t already, schedule a well-child visit and ask your child’s pediatrician about the right shots to protect your children and family. 

Talk to your family and friends who may be hesitant about vaccination to protect more people in our community. Let’s join together and help ensure our kids stay protected from preventable diseases—one vaccine shot at a time.

Dr. Kiragu is the associate chief of critical care at Children’s Minnesota and an associate of the Children’s Respiratory and Critical Care Specialist’s group. He provides pediatric critical care at Children’s Minnesota and Gillette Children’s Hospital. Dr. Kiragu is a passionate advocate for children and is immediate-past president of the MN Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and a past president of the Minnesota Association of Black Physicians. He is an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota. 

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