Michigan made some progress on vaccinations. But COVID-19 is getting in the way.

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Immunization rates for Michigan toddlers fell over the last two years after reaching a peak in 2017, with numbers declining further during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

A new interactive report from the Michigan League for Public Policy (MLPP) and Data Driven Detroit shows overall statewide vaccination rates have increased since 2008. But a downturn over the last two years is a cause for concern, according to health officials and advocates.

In 2008, more than half of Michigan’s counties had an immunization rate less than 70% for children ages 19-35 months. But 70.7% of that same demographic was immunized in 2017, according to the United Health Foundation.

A 2019 measles outbreak — which saw 1,282 cases reported across 31 states — was the largest in the United States since 1992. It led Kids Count in Michigan project officials to more closely monitor immunization data for patterns, according to Kelsey Perdue, the project’s director. What they found was a telltale decline in immunization rates after 2017.

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Over the last five years, Michigan reported 32 meningitis cases, 69 measles cases, 214 mumps cases and 2,834 cases of whooping cough — all infectious diseases that are vaccine-preventable.

On top of that, the World Health Organization (WHO) and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that parents have not been able to regularly take their children to get vaccinations in the first half of 2020, as the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic postponed doctor’s appointments and crucial medical resources were instead allocated to combat the spread of the virus.

“We were already seeing a bit of a dip in vaccination rates prior to the coronavirus pandemic,” said Parker James, a policy analyst for MLPP’s Kids Count project. “That has now kind of accelerated as parents have to delay appointments and things got canceled to really prioritize COVID patients.”

The CDC is warning that this pandemic-caused drop in immunizations heightens risk for other easily-communicable diseases.

“Dips like this are concerning because vaccines are about public health,” Perdue said in a news release about the report. “Herd immunity protects everyone from contagious diseases — but the exact rate of immunity to protect a population varies depending on the disease, so any dip in vaccination rates is a threat.”

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Approximately 46% of Americans are not sure if vaccinations cause autism, while 10% believe they do, according to a 2019 Gallup poll referenced in the report. There is no evidence that immunizations do lead to autism, but there was a retracted study from a U.K. doctor that is still frequently cited and multiple anti-vax conspiracy theories that have spread online

The pandemic brings immunizations to the forefront of health care conversations as researchers search for a safe COVID-19 vaccine, James said. Parents should be aware of misinformation surrounding vaccines, he added. 

He also noted concerns about people choosing to forgo any COVID-19 vaccine once they’re developed and tested.

“Whether it’s with a new COVID-19 vaccine or the existing vaccines for measles and other dangerous communicable diseases, we hope that anyone considering opting out of getting a life-saving vaccine is doing so in consultation with their pediatrician or other medical professionals,” James said, adding that educating the public about the safety of a potential COVID-19 vaccine is critical.

“I will say that vaccines should not be a partisan or political issue,” James added. “They’re one of our best tools in the public health toolkit at keeping children healthy and safe.” 

They are part of known public health strategies to reduce disease and ensure children stay healthy, James said. He compared them to other safety practices such as wearing a mask and social distancing. 

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Bipartisan immunization legislation

In the midst of the dip, a package of bipartisan bills that aim to increase child immunization rates have been introduced in the Michigan Legislature.

State law currently requires parents to provide proof that their child is up-to-date on vaccinations before they enter kindergarten or seventh grade, or if they are going to school for the first time.

But Senate Bills 979, 980 and 981, which are sponsored by state Sen. Curtis Hertel (D-East Lansing), aim to amend sections of the state Public Health Code and require parents or students to provide a proof of immunization in 12th grade, as well. The three pieces of legislation were introduced into the state Senate in late June. 

“This package would basically create another checkpoint where students have to get immunized,” said Jared Burkhart, the executive director of Michigan’s chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

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SB 979 requires a parent or guardian of a student entering 12th grade to show a certificate of immunization prior to that student’s first day of classes. SB 980 directs the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to help school districts adopt the health code changes. SB 981 lays out the process for submitting proof of immunization or submitting a statement citing religious or philosophical objections to the procedures.

The legislation won’t revoke a parent’s ability to refuse to vaccinate their child for religious or philosophical reasons. 

Burkhart hopes the bills get a committee hearing once the Legislature returns from summer recess. Asked if he anticipates the bills to get pushback from anti-vaccine Michigan residents, Burkhart said a small portion could take issue with them — but added they in no way outweigh the majority of the population that believes in vaccinations.

“What we’re seeing in our pediatric offices is some of the misinformation that is spread online is creating hesitant parents,” Burkhart said. “We just have to do more to educate parents to make sure that they know the positives of immunization.”

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He recommends Michigan parents or guardians speak to a trusted pediatrician or visit I Vaccinate — an immunization information website provided by DHHS and the Franny Strong Foundation — to have any questions or concerns answered. 

“It’s not that there are more people that are anti-vaccination,” Burkhart said. “There’s just more people that really want to get more information, which is great, actually, to make sure that they know … immunizations work.”

The data contained in the report can also help ignite conversations about immunizations, said Stephanie Quesnelle, a senior research analyst at Data Driven Detroit.

“We’re encouraging people to use this report and the maps inside it to understand the issue from a local perspective so that they can make an informed choice about the health of their kids,” Quesnelle said.