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Alberta plays catch-up on routine childhood vaccines after pandemic dip

Calgary Herald logo Calgary Herald 2022-09-18 Jason Herring
FILE PHOTO: A child receiving a vaccine. © Provided by Calgary Herald FILE PHOTO: A child receiving a vaccine.

Rates of routine immunizations are down for Alberta infants and school-aged children in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s a trend that chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw says has been seen worldwide, after the pandemic disrupted routine shots. She said in a recent tweet the trend could lead to increased risk of vaccine-preventable diseases, like polio and measles.

Provincial data show declines in immunization rates for nearly all routine shots in 2021 when compared to 2019, before the pandemic began.

The number of Alberta infants who had four doses of the vaccine protecting against diseases including diphtheria, polio, whooping cough and hepatitis B by age two dropped from 78.8 per cent to 74.8 per cent.

By age seven, coverage of the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine dropped from 81 per cent to 75.8 per cent. The drop was less substantial for school-based vaccines like meningococcal conjugate, where 82.9 per cent of Albertans had the full series by age 17 in 2021, compared to 84.7 per cent two years prior.

The province redirected many public-health resources toward fighting COVID-19 over the past two-plus years, said Edmonton pediatrician Dr. Sam Wong. But he noted the pandemic also may have overshadowed routine shots for some parents.

“For a lot of parents, everything has been about COVID, so people tended to forget about the routine vaccinations. And with public health being overtaxed with COVID, I think that’s made it more difficult to get vaccinations out there in some areas,” said Wong, who also heads the Alberta Medical Association’s section of pediatrics. He said it’s possible that in community pockets with low immunization, infectious diseases like measles or polio could spread more readily.

“The concern is that with lower numbers of kids being vaccinated, we’re going to be seeing more kids with what we thought were preventable diseases.”

Related

In a statement to Postmedia, Alberta Health spokesperson Lisa Glover said the province “strongly encourages” families to keep their children’s routine vaccines up-to-date.

Glover said school nurses being redeployed to support COVID-19 testing sites contributed to the dip in immunization rates. She said work is ongoing in boosting coverage.

“We are doing well in catching up on the gap and are pleased to see success in bringing rates back up, through a concerted effort by public health with support of schools and parents,” Glover said.

“AHS is working with schools to schedule routine school immunization rounds this school year and will continue to catch up any delayed students.”

Alberta Health said Canada has been considered polio-free since 1994, and said they’ve found no evidence of the virus which causes that disease from regular public-health monitoring.

Dr. Shannon MacDonald has studied pandemic impacts on pediatric vaccine rates in Alberta alongside a team at the University of Alberta’s faculty of nursing and school of public health.

She said some parents likely avoided public-health centres at the start of the pandemic due to concerns about contracting COVID-19, contributing to an initial dip in coverage for infant vaccines.

That coverage rate has recovered fairly well, MacDonald said, but it still hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels. However, she noted Alberta’s goal should be to surpass those previous rates.

“Our vaccine coverage wasn’t where it needed to be before the pandemic. Our coverage should be in the 95 per cent range for a lot of these vaccines, and some are sitting in the 75 to 80 per cent range,” she said.

Hitting those numbers requires a greater investment in public health efforts, MacDonald said. She said it’s easy enough to get more vaccine doses or needles, but more public-health nurses to staff clinics are needed.

 U of A Faculty of Nursing assistant professor Shannon MacDonald. U of A Faculty of Nursing assistant professor Shannon MacDonald.

It’s also important school immunization efforts target students at risk of missing their shots when they graduate into high school, where clinics don’t take place, MacDonald said. It adds up to a busy year ahead for public-health officials.

“We have to be careful that we haven’t lost kids who move into high school, and we didn’t follow them up,” she said. “Public health is very aware of these issues, so they’ve been really prioritizing getting those Grade 9 kids caught up.”

Wong worried misinformation and vaccine hesitancy surrounding the COVID-19 shots are impacting parents’ decisions to complete their children’s routine immunization schedule.

“People get onto social media and they get into a rabbit hole, and they don’t talk to their physicians or public health. Instead they’re believing a lot of these untruths, and as a result we’re seeing a lot more hesitancy,” Wong said.

“These vaccinations have been around for decades, and have saved countless lives … These are preventable illnesses with a simple vaccination, a simple shot. And if there’s enough people not doing it, then it becomes a community problem, not just an individual problem.”

jherring@postmedia.com

Twitter: @jasonfherring

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