Vaccination rates for kindergarten students are declining. That’s why doctors say it’s “really bad news.”

A children's chair and desk with letters on it in a classroom.

Vaccination rates for the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine have fallen to a decade-low, according to a new report from the CDC. (Getty Images)

Childhood vaccination rates have declined for the third consecutive year, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The report found that 93 percent of kindergarteners received state-required vaccines during the 2021-2022 school year, a two percentage point drop from the 2019-2020 school year. During the 2020-2021 school year, 94% of kindergartens received the required vaccinations, showing a gradual downward trend in routine childhood immunizations.

Overall, 2.6 percent of children had a vaccine exemption last year, and vaccination coverage for the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine is the lowest in a decade. Coverage with diphtheria, tetanus, and acellular pertussis (DTaP), polio, and chickenpox vaccines has also declined in most states.

“It’s so daunting,” Dr. Danelle Fisher, chair of pediatrics at California’s Providence Saint John’s Health Center, tells Yahoo Life. “We’ve come a long way with childhood vaccinations and now people are fearful of vaccines that are waking up.”

Dr. Juan Salazar, chief physician at Connecticut Children’s, tells Yahoo Life this is “bad news” and “very concerning.”

There is much to unravel around this drop in childhood immunizations. Here’s what you need to know.

What is behind the decline in vaccines?

Experts say there are a few potential factors at play. “During the first year of the pandemic, child care visits dropped dramatically, starting this downward trend in immunization rates,” Dr. Michael Bauer, pediatrician and medical director of Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital.

At the same time, the pandemic has become politicized and has encouraged “a simultaneous rise in questioning public health policies and distrust of government decisions, leading to a surge in anti-vaccination sentiment,” says Bauer.

“That anti-vaccination noise has deterred parents from not only avoiding COVID vaccinations, but other vaccines as well,” Dr. Thomas Russo, chief of infectious diseases at the University at Buffalo in New York. Fisher agrees. “The misinformation about the COVID vaccine has kickstarted this distrust of vaccines in general,” he says, adding that these routine childhood vaccinations are “tried and true vaccines” that have been used for decades. “It’s very sad that a segment of the population is buying into this misinformation and not protecting their children,” says Fisher.

Along with the distrust, Bauer notes “an increase in the number of states passing laws allowing parents to refuse to vaccinate their children other than for medical reasons.” He adds that “the states that have the strictest laws have the highest vaccine compliance rates.”

What are the health implications of even a slight decline in vaccination rates?

Both unvaccinated children and those around them may be at risk of getting sick, Salazar says. He cites the recent measles outbreak in Ohio, which largely affected unvaccinated children, as an example of what can happen when vaccination rates start to decline.

“Even a slight decline in vaccination rates can lead to a dramatic increase in these preventable diseases, as evidenced by recent outbreaks of measles, which is highly preventable,” Bauer says.

“We know these vaccines work,” Salazar says. “Introduce one of these very communicable viruses into a school or daycare and it will spread.” Of particular concern, Salazar says, are younger children in daycare centers or siblings of older children who are too young to be partially or fully vaccinated against certain diseases such as measles, which is highly contagious. “These young children have the potential to become very ill and die,” she says. “Your wrong or misinformed choice will affect a child whose family was doing everything right but hasn’t yet been vaccinated due to age.”

What if these vaccination rates continue to decline?

Childhood vaccination rates have been steadily declining for years, and doctors say it’s worrying. “If this trend continues, we will have a big comeback of some diseases like measles and maybe even polio,” Russo says. “We will see the return of pediatric infections that were virtually non-existent before this. If someone brings an infection, it will take off.”

Salazar says he is concerned that “we will go back to a time when measles caused outbreaks and death.” He says he’s also worried that “the chickenpox will come back with complications,” noting that “we need to go back to understanding what it’s like to have whooping cough and measles and complicated chickenpox. People have forgotten about it, and it’s bad.”

Fisher urges parents to vaccinate their children on time. “It’s not a joke,” she says. “Your child’s life depends on it.”

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