Fewer Alaska children are getting common vaccinations for debilitating and wildly contagious illnesses like polio, which,
decades ago, used to infect and paralyze kids before vaccines wiped it out in the U.S.
State health data show that from 2013 to 2021, the number of children in Alaska who completed the childhood series of vaccinations decreased from about 60% to about 46%, with a steeper drop off starting in 2020, coinciding with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink says that concerns her. And while Zink says she thinks the pandemic is a factor, she doesn’t point directly to some Americans’ distrust of COVID vaccines as an explanation for the declining rates of other vaccinations.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Anne Zink: Many people are trying to answer that question from numerous angles. Particularly, in the national data that I’ve seen, the reason that people choose to not get vaccinated are multifactorial, and there’s not a single reason. The role that COVID-19 has played, or concerns about the vaccine, is a component for some people. But what I think is really interesting from some recent data that I saw is the single biggest reason people had not gotten their children vaccinated was just convenience and time. “I hadn’t gotten into the appointment yet,” (or) “I hadn’t been able to just ask my doctor a couple questions.” And so I think there’s a lot more that we can do for convenience and just making this easy. And then making sure we’re answering questions. It may be about, “Do they really need it? What are the side effects of it?” Concern about needles. And I just encourage people to be open and honest with their provider about what their questions are.
But I think it’s important to remember that vaccines are probably the safest thing that we do in medicine, and they’re safer than most over-the-counter medications. I have much more concern about, you know, people taking ibuprofen daily than vaccination. You know, in Alaska, we winterize we get ready for the winter as it comes. And as we winterize, we should be also considering immunizing. So winterize and immunize. Make sure that you’re getting your booster shots. So this year will be flu, we’ll be having a COVID booster that will be bivalent, meaning that it is being able to address (COVID-19’s) Omicron (variant) as well as, kind of, the old variant as well. So it’s, I don’t want to say “new and improved,” but it’s updated, based on the current variants that we’re seeing. So it’s a multiple-variant vaccine. So we’ll be having that really the beginning of September, and then making sure that your kids are vaccinated prior to going to school and getting caught up in the vaccine series. So just like we take care of our normal health, we change out our tires, and we winterize our houses and we pull out the snow jackets, there’s things that we need to do to get ready for school and get ready for the winter, and part of that is teaching your immune system about these viruses so that they can be prepared.
Casey Grove: I have to ask, are you worried about what might happen if that trend continues, with with fewer people getting childhood vaccines?
Anne Zink: Oh, yeah, definitely I’m concerned about that. I mean, (for) a couple of different reasons. First of all, as a clinician, it’s heartbreaking to see something that was potentially preventable impact people. And that can be everything from a car accident where someone wasn’t seat belted, or seeing someone get really sick from an infection that could have been minimized if they had been vaccinated prior to that. It’s just, it feels like a failure as a public health leader if we did not do more to encourage people to take those preventative measures. Early on, too, it’s so much easier to slow things down early than it is later.
And so we have an opportunity as a state right now to increase our vaccine rates so that we aren’t seeing our first case of polio in the state or we aren’t having a measles outbreak or mumps outbreak in the state, or transferring more kids from, you know, a village because of bad pertussis. Our health care capacity right now is really full. I mean, our hospitals are incredibly full right now, just because there’s a lot of people out doing a lot of different things. It’s not because of any one factor. But we have limited health care capacity in this state. And we all play a major role in keeping ourselves healthy and well and our communities healthy and well. And we have tools and vaccines are one of the simplest, easiest tools that we have to keep ourselves healthy and safe.
I mean, diseases like polio, the majority of cases are asymptomatic, and so it spreads person to person asymptomatically until someone ends up paralyzed. So before we get to that point, we really need to do what we can to try to increase those rates to protect each other, and I think Alaskans are– I think part of I love working up here is people check on each other when you have a flat tire, neighbors bring you food, we work with each other as a community, and we’re also good at being tough and caring for ourselves. And so I would just encourage Alaskans to take care of themselves and their community by making sure that they’re vaccinated and their loved ones are as well.