A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Tom James: Don’t let COVID-19 pandemic create an epidemic of measles or other preventable diseases

Delayed haircuts, “drive-by” birthday parties, staycations – these will be common 2020 family memories.

Don’t let measles, chickenpox, whooping cough, or other preventable diseases become part of the memory.

I’m a practicing pediatrician who is old enough to remember treating children for bacterial meningitis and rotovirus before a vaccine was readily available. Several patients had mild cases, but some had serious complications. It can be fatal for some children.

Tom James, M.D. is WellCare of Kentucky’s Chief Medical Officer and a practicing pediatrician.

Recently, Kentucky Public Health Commissioner Dr. Steven Stack took a moment during the governor’s COVID-19 briefing to urge parents – even while social distancing – to schedule well-child visits and get their children vaccinated.

He was right to do so, because the situation is urgent. Vaccination rates have plummeted since March. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports less than half of five-month-olds were on schedule for vaccines – a significant decrease from the typical rate of about 66%. The CDC reports similar trends among older children, with non-influenza vaccination rates decreasing by 21.5% for children 18 years old and younger.

Parents are under tremendous pressure right now. Many are trying to work from home while watching kids. Others are struggling to find child care so they can leave for work – and then they have to worry about the exposures that they and their children are bringing home. It’s exhausting for everyone.

But don’t let well-child visits or vaccinations be the thing you skip this year. Visiting the doctor can be done safely. Expect to see everyone in masks, and you may find that the waiting room is now safely in the parking lot.

The schedule of immunizations for children recommended by the CDC is carefully considered for necessity and timing. Delays to the scheduled vaccinations or booster shots put children at greater risk of disease.

As the chief medical officer for WellCare of Kentucky, the state’s largest Medicaid provider, I see this as an important public health issue. Last year, the CDC reported the highest number of measles cases since 1972 – and about 10% of them were sick enough to be hospitalized. An outbreak now, with fewer children vaccinated, could be quite dangerous.

As a practicing pediatrician, I see this as a direct threat to the beautiful families I help care for every week. I don’t want to start seeing measles again – not when a vaccine is available.

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