Giving Routine Vaccinations a Boost
During World Immunization Week, Dr. Michael Greenberg, Medical Head, Sanofi Pasteur North America, discusses the importance of routine vaccination programs—and seizing the opportunity to catch up as we return to in-person settings.
A year ago, as healthcare professionals faced the unprecedented challenge of responding to a rapidly emerging pandemic, I wrote that it was crucial to maintain routine immunizations during the pandemic to avoid a “crisis behind the crisis” of resurging vaccine-preventable diseases.
Unfortunately, many vaccination programs did lose ground. For example, public sector vaccine ordering data published by the CDC in March 2021 showed a 14% drop in 2020-2021 compared to 2019. Orders of the measles vaccine specifically were down by more than 20%, a year after measles cases surged worldwide to hit a 23-year high.
This year, during World Immunization Week, we celebrate that more people than ever are aware of the importance of vaccines. At the same time, the need for routine and childhood immunizations in the U.S. is more critical than at any point in my medical career. We need to get back on track, and we need to do it quickly: COVID-19 vaccination eligibility has expanded across the United States, and growing numbers of people are returning or contemplating a return to in-person work and school settings.
Many people are highly motivated to get a COVID-19 vaccine—not only to protect themselves from the severe risk the disease presents but also so they can more safely resume the day-to-day activities that matter most, like seeing their loved ones. But, we must come back together as a society in a way that protects our communities and health system from outbreaks of other vaccine-preventable diseases. This requires stepping up collective efforts to support patients in completing or catching up on critical routine vaccinations.
For example, although highly effective vaccines have been readily available to protect people against meningitis for some time, those vaccination rates were below CDC recommendations even pre-pandemic, 2019 data revealed. This leaves too many at risk of a disease that can have a mortality rate of 10 to 15% even with antibiotic treatment and leaves one in five survivors with permanent complications such as hearing loss, organ damage and limb amputations, as my colleague Dr. Corey Robertson explained on World Meningitis Day. Even one case of meningococcal disease is one too many.
Meanwhile, even though some childhood vaccines have evolved to require fewer injections, vaccination rates in children 6 weeks to 4 years of age—against infections like diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, hepatitis b and others—have dropped during the pandemic.
And even though there is widespread availability of flu vaccines, which reduce the risk of flu-related hospitalization by as much as 61% for people age 65 and older, 11 million Americans in that age group go unvaccinated yearly. This leaves too many of those vulnerable people—who account for between 70 and 90% of seasonal flu-related deaths in the country—unprotected from another vaccine-preventable disease. Among the broader population, meanwhile, 51.8% of persons 6 months and older were vaccinated against the flu during the 2019-20 season. This leaves nearly half unprotected against complications that can include bacterial pneumonia, sinus infections, and a worsening of chronic conditions. People with chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, chronic kidney disease, asthma and others are at high risk for flu complications—making vaccination especially important for them.
Incidence of certain infectious diseases during the pandemic has declined. But that decline does not mean these diseases present any less risk—rather, social distancing, mask wearing and other COVID-19 precautions have resulted in a temporary reprieve. As we continue returning to in-person settings and give these diseases more opportunity to spread again, being complacent in our vaccination against them is not an option.
For instance, though rates of infectious diseases such as measles, mumps, respiratory syncytial virus, pneumococcal disease and the flu have declined during the pandemic, they are not any less of a threat to public health. In fact, as we head back to in-person settings, their threat may be even greater. And though so few people got sick during the current flu season, more people—especially children—may be susceptible to catching and spreading it next year as they return to public settings and the germs those entail.
Helping catch people up on routine immunizations, and supporting continued uptake of the flu vaccine this year, will be critical as we continue our return to in-person settings.
Vaccinations, which save about five lives per minute worldwide, are a cornerstone of public health. They are often the best—if not, the only way—to protect us from many serious infectious diseases at every stage of life. In the United States alone, vaccines prevented 21 million hospitalizations and 732,000 deaths among children who were born over a 20-year period. This equates to nearly $295 billion in direct cost savings and $1.38 trillion in total societal costs, which include lost wages and declines in productivity.
We’ve made it this far in the global pandemic, and we’ve experienced a reprieve from certain infectious diseases because of pandemic-required precautions. Some of us are even fully vaccinated against COVID-19, with that number growing each day.
We should celebrate how far we’ve come, but we cannot stop here.
We must see this through and all do our part to help ensure we emerge from this pandemic immunized against all vaccine-preventable diseases as we continue returning to work, school and a more normal life. Each one of us has an individual part to play: If you have delayed or skipped routine vaccinations—or your loved ones are behind on theirs—I urge you to get in touch with your healthcare providers to schedule catchup appointments.