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Kindergarten vaccination rates dropped again

The drop, while small, raises public health concerns about outbreaks of preventable disease, CDC officials say

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Socially distanced kindergarten students wait for their parents to pick them up at Maurice Sendak Elementary School in Los Angeles.

Socially distanced kindergarten students wait for their parents to pick them up on the first day of in-person learning at Maurice Sendak Elementary School on April 13, 2021, in Los Angeles. Vaccination rates for U.S. kindergarteners in 2022 saw a significant drop for the second year in a row, according to new data released Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023, and worried federal officials are launching a new campaign to try to help bring them back up.

Jae C. Hong, Associated Press

Federal health officials hope a new awareness campaign will prompt parents to see that their kindergarteners have all their vaccines. The vaccination rate across the U.S. as the young students start school has dropped again — the second year in a row.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says in the 2021-22 school year, vaccine rates for measles, tetanus, polio and varicella dropped to 93% each nationwide, 1% lower than the previous year — which itself was 1% lower than when children were vaccinated before the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019-20. The vaccination rate goal for each vaccine is 95% or better, the target set by the Healthy People 2030 campaign.

“It means nearly 250,000 kindergartens are potentially not protected against measles alone. And we know that measles, mumps and rubella vaccination coverage for kindergarteners is the lowest it has been in over a decade,” Dr. Georgina Peacock, director of the CDC’s immunization services division, said during a media briefing on Thursday.

The CDC said the number of parents who sought exemptions for their children remained low in 2021-22, at 2.6%, “although the percentage of children with exemptions increased in 38 states and the District of Columbia.”

Nearly 4% of kindergarteners nationwide did not have their MMR vaccinations completed and were not exempt, per the CDC report. That percentage had increased in most states. It noted that typically when students are not exempt and are under-vaccinated, they have provisional enrollment or a grace period, and that such provisions were expanded somewhat during the early years of the pandemic.

The CDC report was based on public school kindergarten vaccination records from 49 states and private schools in 48 states. Montana did not provide its data.

The report also noted that because so many children were homeschooled or moved around during that time, the numbers could be something of an overcount or undercount.

“The pandemic disrupted vaccinations and other routine health care for children, and also taxed the ability of school administrators and nurses to track which children weren’t up-to-date on shots. CDC officials said decreased confidence in vaccines is another likely contributor,” The Associated Press reported.

But health experts say it’s cause for concern. Inadequate vaccination is a problem, according to the CDC, because it can lead to outbreaks. And others point out that the diseases the vaccines address cause misery and can pose a long-term threat of disease or even deadly complications that could be avoided with vaccinations.

AP said the numbers indicate as many as 275,000 kindergarteners lack full protection via vaccines. And it notes that a case of paralytic polio was reported last year in New York, while there have been recent outbreaks of measles in Minnesota and Ohio.

And CBS News reported that “some of the decline could also be the direct result of changes in schools themselves during the COVID-19 pandemic. Twenty-three states told the CDC that they had incomplete data from schools, with some facing delays in reporting their figures.”

According to CDC, some states — Hawaii, Maine, Maryland and Wyoming — saw higher vaccination rates. The largest declines in vaccination were in Mississippi, Georgia and Wisconsin.

Nine states currently have mumps, measles and rubella vaccine rates below 90%, according to CBS: Alaska (78%), Wisconsin (82.6%), Georgia (83.2%), Idaho (83.9%), Kentucky (86.5%), Ohio (88.3%), Colorado (88.4%), New Hampshire (88.7%) and Minnesota (89%).

Another report from the CDC’s National Immunization Survey that was also published Thursday said that the majority of children under 2 are up to date on their shots, compared with previous years.

“Around 70% of kids born during 2018 through 2019 are up to date on the ‘combined’ series of seven vaccines recommended for these youngest children, which span shots ranging from diphtheria to pneumococcal infections,” CBS News said.

“That report warned of the risk that a myriad of factors, ranging from eroding trust in institutions to state legislative efforts to weaken vaccination requirements, could upend years of progress on boosting routine vaccinations,” per CBS.