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Alberta catches up with routine childhood vaccinations after epidemic subsides

“The concern is that as fewer children get vaccinated, we will see more children infected with what we thought were preventable diseases”

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Routine vaccination rates for infants and school-aged children have fallen in Alberta in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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It’s a trend Dr. Dina Henshaw, chief medical officer for health, says has been seen around the world, after the pandemic disrupted routine shots. This trend may lead to an increased risk of vaccine-preventable diseases, such as polio and measles, she said in a recent tweet.

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County data shows lower immunization rates for nearly all routine shots in 2021 compared to 2019, before the pandemic began.

The number of Alberta children getting four doses of the vaccine that protects against diseases including diphtheria, polio, whooping cough and hepatitis B at age two fell from 78.8 percent to 74.8 percent.

By age seven, MMR vaccine coverage had fallen from 81 percent to 75.8 percent. The decline was less significant for school vaccines such as meningococcal conjugate, with 82.9 percent of Albertans having had the full series by age 17 in 2021, compared to 84.7 percent two years earlier.

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Edmonton pediatrician Dr. Sam Wong said the county has redirected many public health resources toward combating COVID-19 over the past two years or more. But he noted that the pandemic may also have overshadowed routine shots for some parents.

“For a lot of parents, it was all about COVID, so people tend to forget about routine vaccinations. With the public health overwhelmed by COVID, I think this has increased the number of children,” said Wong, who also chairs the pediatric division of the Alberta Pediatric Medical Association. It is difficult to get vaccinations there in some areas.” He said infectious diseases such as measles and polio could spread more easily in community pockets with low immunization.

“The concern is that as fewer children get vaccinated, we will see more children suffering from what we thought were preventable diseases.”

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

Glover said the redeployment of school nurses to support COVID-19 testing sites has contributed to lower vaccination rates. She said work is continuing to boost coverage.

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“We are doing well in closing the gap and are pleased to see success in raising prices again, through a concerted public health effort with support from schools and parents,” Glover said.

“AHS is working with schools to schedule routine school immunization rounds this school year and will continue to make up for any students who are late.”

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

Dr. Shannon MacDonald has studied the effects of the pandemic on childhood vaccination rates in Alberta along with a team at the University of Alberta’s School of Nursing and School of Public Health.

She said some parents likely avoided public health centers at the start of the pandemic due to concerns about infection with COVID-19, which contributed to an initial decline in infant vaccination coverage.

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MacDonald said that coverage rate has recovered fairly well, but has not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels. However, she indicated that Alberta’s goal should be to exceed those previous rates.

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

Reaching these numbers requires a greater investment in public health efforts, MacDonald said. It’s easy to get more shots of the vaccine or needles, she said, but more public health nurses are needed to staff clinics.

U of the College of Nursing Associate Professor Shannon MacDonald.
U of the College of Nursing, Associate Professor Shannon MacDonald.

It’s also important that school immunization efforts target students who are at risk of losing their shots when they graduate to high school, MacDonald said, since there are no clinics. It adds to a busy year ahead for public health officials.

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“We have to be careful not to miss the kids moving on to high school, and we didn’t follow through,” she said. “Public Health is very aware of these issues, so they have really prioritized getting kids into ninth grade.”

Wong is concerned that misinformation and hesitation about vaccines surrounding COVID-19 shots are affecting parents’ decisions to complete their children’s routine immunization schedule.

“People go into social media and go into a rabbit hole, and they don’t talk to their doctors or public health. Instead, they believe a lot of these lies, and as a result we see a lot of hesitation.”

“These vaccines have been around for decades, and they have saved countless lives… These are diseases that can be prevented with a simple vaccine, a simple dose. And if enough people aren’t doing it, it becomes a societal problem, not just an individual problem.”

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