Institute for Public Health Innovation (IPHI) Logo

A Shot at Healthy Living

By Rebecca Epstein

Last November, I gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. By his 4-month checkup, he had received vaccines to protect him from six diseases. By this time next year, he’ll have immunity from 14 preventable diseases.

As a new mom and a leader with ImmunizeVA, both are personal and professional priorities for me. ImmunizeVA is a statewide coalition of medical and public health professionals dedicated to raising awareness about the safety of vaccines and immunizations.

April 24-30 is National Infant Immunization Week, a national observance highlighting the importance of protecting children two years and younger from vaccine-preventable diseases. It’s the perfect time to talk about why on-time vaccinations are critical in the fight against potentially life-threatening diseases.

Vaccinations can be scary. But what I find scarier is the thought of my son suffering from the long-term effects of a disease that could have been prevented. I have peace of mind knowing that my son will have the best chance of being protected from a preventable illness. Vaccines are safe and proven to prevent severe illness and death.

The good news is, Virginians are doing a commendable job of getting their COVID-19 vaccine. According to the Virginia Department of Health, about 74% of the population is fully vaccinated with two doses.

When it comes to keeping our kids healthy, we have work to do though. We are noticing downward trends in overall vaccination rates, from COVID-19 to more common vaccines like Tetanus and Hepatitis A and B.

The truth is vaccines help prevent potentially fatal or severe illnesses like measles, mumps, polio and others. They’re really important. In my line of work, I have spoken with survivors of polio. I was particularly struck by hearing a woman describe the experience of seeing her father cry for the first time and understanding it was because he thought she would die. The polio vaccine was considered a miracle. The COVID-19 pandemic reminded us of what it is like to live without the protection of a vaccine.

Every year, the Virginia Department of Health fields an immunization survey to measure compliance with school-required vaccinations. Before the pandemic, Virginia was tracking well, with a school entry vaccination rate of 96.3% in 2018. During the early part of the pandemic in fall 2021, immunization rates dropped to 88.6%. Today, immunization rates are at 89.4%, leaving an estimated 9,500 Virginia kids without protection again measles and other diseases. It’s not hard to see that we have some work to do.

These are not viruses we want in our classrooms or homes, and the decrease in vaccinations has consequences. If everyone is vaccinated, community immunity protects vulnerable members of society who are too old or too sick to get vaccinated. On the other hand, if vaccination rates decline below levels required to maintain community immunity, diseases pass more easily from person to person, and dangerous outbreaks of preventable diseases could follow.

We know pandemic-era disruptions could be the cause of the decreases we’re seeing, in addition to misinformation about vaccines. I understand that researching vaccine information can be overwhelming. I’m not a doctor or a pediatrician. I’m just a mom who wants to see her son grow up in world that’s safe to live and play for many years.

Please talk to pediatricians or trusted healthcare professionals to get the facts. If your child hasn’t been to the doctor during the pandemic and is behind on immunizations, please call a doctor, free clinic or federally qualified health center today. Most vaccines are free with Medicaid and other insurance plans.

Let’s continue to talk about the importance and effectiveness of vaccines with our friends and families. Simple, everyday conversations can help more people feel comfortable and confident to get fully immunized. Together, we can help ensure everyone is healthy in Virginia.

Rebecca Epstein is senior program manager at ImmunizeVA. She can be reached at [email protected].

This op-ed was also reported by: