Health experts share warning during Infant Immunization Week

About a third of Minnesotans younger than 2 years old are not up to date on their recommended vaccines, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. The agency is raising awareness about the decline during Infant Immunization Week.

“We do know the more people that are vaccinated, the less likely we are to see spread of vaccine-preventable diseases,” said Jessica Hancock-Allen, the division director of infectious disease for the Minnesota Department of Health.

The number of infants up to date on their recommended vaccines has dropped from about 69% in 2019 to 63% in 2023, according to MDH.

“During COVID-19, for multitude of different reasons, lots of folks fell behind on their primary care visits,” Hancock-Allen said. “There [also] continues to be some concerns around vaccines and vaccine hesitancy, and then just the truth is parents of kids, especially of young kids, are very busy.”

The decline is happening as serious illnesses circulate, which leaves infants vulnerable.

On Thursday, Minnetonka High School alerted families there have been multiple vaccinated students in the high school community with pertussis, also known as whooping cough. The district wrote in a letter to families, “While routine vaccinations do help to protect against pertussis, they are not foolproof but can reduce the severity and length of illness compared to those not vaccinated.”

Infants typically receive their first whooping cough vaccine at 2 months old. The illness can be severe among infants, according to MDH.

“Our goal is really to get as many kids that can get vaccinated, vaccinated,” said Jessica Hancock-Allen.

The Health Department is also concerned about measles. Minnesota has seen three cases this year among children 6 years old and younger who were unvaccinated.

CDC data shows that nationwide, there have been at least 125 cases this year. Fifty-seven of those cases were among children under the age of 5, and 65% of those kids were hospitalized.

“It can be incredibly devastating for families,” said Dr. Gigi Chawla, the chief of general pediatrics for Children’s Minnesota. “Kids are often hospitalized with dehydration and respiratory concerns, oftentimes in the ICU and some kids can even die.”

She explained there are also chronic conditions that can develop.

“Years later you can have a neurologic outcome that can result in seizures and even death,” she said.

Chawla explained the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine is one of the best at preventing infection, with two doses providing about 99% protection. It’s available for children who are at least 1 year old, although infants as young as 6 months old can get the vaccine if they plan to travel internationally.

State data looks at kindergartners and shows only about 88% of kids that age were fully vaccinated against measles during the 2022 to 2023 school year, which is well below the 95% needed for herd immunity for the illness.

“We’re at a point where the community rates of MMR vaccination are low enough where it doesn’t offer enough protection as we would like for kids under the age of one or for those who can’t get vaccinated,” said Dr. Chawla.

The three Minnesota cases of measles were treated at Children’s Minnesota.

“Because measles spreads so quickly it will seek out whoever is vulnerable,” said Lynn Bahta, an immunization clinical consultant for MDH. “The virus that causes measles is very small, which means if one person was sick with measles and they sneeze or they cough, or even if they’re talking or crying, those tiny viral particles will go out into the air. Unlike some of our heavier germs, the measles germ or the virus tends to float in the air for a long time.”

Bahta recommends families speak to their doctor about getting the vaccine early if they are traveling overseas with an infant who is six to 11 months old.

“We know that [vaccination] rates are lower not only in Minnesota but in the nation and globally,” said Bahta.

Children’s Minnesota offers same-day and walk-in appointments at its nine primary care clinics. Hennepin County also offers free walk-in immunization clinics for infants through 18 years old.

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