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Since The Pandemic Began, Many Kids Missed Out On Immunizations

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

It's back-to-school time for many children across the U.S. Typically, this is when parents and schools check on routine vaccines for childhood diseases like rubella, diphtheria and whooping cough. But since the pandemic started, many kids have missed out on their immunizations. Now infectious disease experts worry that less protection against these older diseases could raise the prospect of outbreaks. Yuki Noguchi reports.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Karen Schwind manages a team of school nurses in the central Texas district of New Braunfels. A big part of the nurse's job is checking every student against the state's immunization database to make sure they've received their required shots.

KAREN SCHWIND: We start notifying parents in the winter - like, January, March, and then again in May.

NOGUCHI: They did so this year, too. But of course, this year wasn't like others.

SCHWIND: Many clinics that give routine vaccines have been converted to giving COVID vaccines. So in many places, the availability of the routine vaccines may not be the usual spot.

NOGUCHI: That on top of last year's lockdowns and missed annual checkups. And Schwind estimates that about 15% of students in her district are now missing shots. According to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, the same pattern is playing out across the country, with the overall number of routine childhood vaccine doses down 6% to 18% below pre-pandemic levels, depending on the vaccine or the age group. And yet in Texas, as in every other state, childhood vaccinations are required by law. As Karen Schwind says...

SCHWIND: No shots, no school.

NOGUCHI: Typically, though, checking immunization databases or asking parents and doctors for records falls to school nurses. Linda Mendonca is president of the National Association of School Nurses. Their research shows a quarter of schools don't even have a nurse on staff, so it's unclear who's keeping tabs.

LINDA MENDONCA: I don't know who does it, honestly. You know, maybe the school secretary might keep track of records when they come into school or something. But do they follow up? Do they understand what they're missing, and so on?

NOGUCHI: William Schaffner, a professor of infectious disease at Vanderbilt University, says the result could be a big backslide in immunity against diseases that had been under control.

WILLIAM SCHAFFNER: We've seen that movie before with measles a couple of years ago.

NOGUCHI: Measles surged in 2019 after being eradicated in the U.S. in 2000.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: There's a measles outbreak in New York City.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Someone at this Portland Trailblazers game was highly contagious.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Texas may be the site of the next measles outbreak.

NOGUCHI: The disease traveled quickly within pockets of the population where vaccination rates ran low. Schaffner, who is 84, says such outbreaks were far more common decades ago. He remembers that for most of his childhood, polio kept a lid on his social life.

SCHAFFNER: Couldn't go to swimming pools. Couldn't go to movies.

NOGUCHI: He says parents lived in fear that their children would be crippled or even die. When a vaccine became available in Schaffner's college years...

SCHAFFNER: Children lined up for blocks, were vaccinated and got little buttons like those campaign buttons that said they were a polio pioneer.

NOGUCHI: Thanks to the vaccine, polio has now been eradicated in the U.S. But, says Schaffner, many people today didn't live through that era, and some parents may not feel as much urgency about getting their children those missed shots.

SCHAFFNER: There is not the knowledge and therefore not the respect or the fear of these childhood diseases. And so the vaccines aren't nearly as valued.

NOGUCHI: He says he hopes it won't take a resurgence to remind people how important it is to keep up with those childhood immunizations.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNWED SAILOR'S "AJO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.