Health experts concerned about potential outbreaks of diseases like measles with lag in routine childhood vaccinations

MADISON, Wis. – Health experts are worried about serious illness passing through the halls of schools this upcoming school year – and not just COVID-19.

The pandemic slowed down routine immunization rates across all ages, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. That includes vaccines required at certain ages for school children to prevent diseases such as measles, mumps, Hepatitis B, chicken pox, whooping cough, tetanus, diphtheria and polio. Health providers recommend a number of other vaccines as well, including those that protect against HPV.

“During the pandemic, we had a lot of parents choose to not come to the doctor’s office,” said Dr. Dan Beardmore, a pediatrician at SSM Health St. Mary’s in Janesville.

In 2020, DHS data shows routinely administered vaccinations dipped below the 2015-2019 average in various age groups.

“It’s really that school-aged group we’re most concerned about at this point,” said Dr. James Conway, a pediatric infectious disease expert at UW Health. He noted that the biggest dip in vaccination was seen among 5- to 6-year-olds.

Conway said with increased travel and a potential threat to group immunity in certain pockets of the community, an outbreak of one of the preventable diseases is possible.

“The likelihood is actually quite high,” he said. “(The viruses are) out there and they’re waiting to hit, and certainly this is a perfect setting where it may happen.”

The potential for outbreaks, which have popped up across the country in recent years, is on the radar of the state’s Department of Public Instruction, too.

“That’s a big concern for public health officials, yes,” said Louise Wilson, the state nurse and health services consultant with DPI. “It’s possible, again, if you have your rates go down, disease can sneak up on you, particularly measles, which is so contagious and easy to spread.”

DHS numbers show that the percentage of students with a waiver allowing them to skip required vaccinations for medical, religious or personal reasons has increased steadily over the past two decades, from 1.6% in 1996 to 5% this past school year. The personal conviction waiver in particular contributed to that increase.

“We’ve been nervous about that for a couple years,” Conway said.

“If you talk to the colleagues who hired me and the colleagues who sat in this desk in this office before me, they’ll tell you about the sick kids they used to care for. Over the progression of their career, they stopped seeing it, and it was a wonderful thing, thanks to school vaccines,” Beardmore said. “I don’t want parents thinking it’s not a big deal. It is or we wouldn’t have vaccines. It is important.”

Beardmore knows that firsthand with chicken pox, which can be spread from children to their families and be much more deadly in adults.

“My sister and I got it when we were little. My sister was sick and I was too, but it wasn’t that bad. My mom was nearly in the ICU. She didn’t get it when she was a child,” he said.  “I’ve actually tested a number of kids this year for chicken pox worried it might be, because they were unvaccinated children who missed their appointments.”

The message from doctors is that their offices are open and safe to get kids back up to speed.

“Parents need to understand it’s very likely many of their kids have fallen behind,” Conway said. “I think vaccines are going to be more important than ever as we move forward.”

He said it’s a good idea to schedule appointments soon because they’re filling up quickly ahead of the start of school.