Pediatric Vaccination Rates Have Failed to Recover

William G. Wilkoff, MD

January 09, 2023

I guess we shouldn't be surprised that vaccination rates in this country fell during the frenzy created by the COVID pandemic. We had a lot on our plates. Schools closed and many of us retreated into what seemed to be the safety of our homes. Parents were reluctant to take their children anywhere, let alone a pediatrician's office. State health agencies wisely focused on collecting case figures and then shepherding the efforts to immunize against SARS-CoV-2 once vaccines were available. Tracking and promoting the existing children's vaccinations fell off the priority list, even in places with exemplary vaccination rates.

Whether or not the pandemic is over continues to be a topic for debate, but there is clearly a general shift toward a new normalcy. However, vaccination rates of our children have not rebounded to prepandemic levels. In fact, in some areas they are continuing to fall.

In a recent guest essay in the New York Times, Ezekiel J. Emmanuel, MD, PhD, a physician and professor of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania, and Matthew Guido, his research assistant, explore the reasons for this lack of a significant rebound. The authors cite recent outbreaks of measles in Ohio and polio in New York City as examples of the peril we are facing if we fail to reverse the trend. In some areas measles vaccine rates alarmingly have dipped below the threshold for herd immunity.

While Dr. Emmanuel and Mr. Guido acknowledge that the pandemic was a major driver of the falling vaccination rates they lay blame on the persistent decline on three factors that they view as correctable: nonmedical exemptions, our failure to vigorously enforce existing vaccine requirements, and inadequate public health campaigns.

The authors underestimate the lingering effect of the pandemic on parents' vaccine hesitancy. As a septuagenarian who often hangs out with other septuagenarians I view the rapid development and effectiveness of the COVID vaccine as astounding and a boost for vaccines in general. However, were I much younger I might treat the vaccine's success with a shrug. After some initial concern, the younger half of the population didn't seem to see the illness as much of a threat to themselves or their peers. This attitude was reinforced by the fact that few of their peers, including those who were unvaccinated, were getting seriously ill. Despite all the hype, most parents and their children never ended up getting seriously ill.

You can understand why many parents might be quick to toss what you and I consider a successful COVID vaccine onto what they view as a growing pile of vaccines for diseases that in their experience have never sickened or killed anyone they have known.

Let's be honest: Over the last half century we have produced several generations of parents who have little knowledge and certainly no personal experience with a childhood disease on the order or magnitude of polio. The vaccines that we have developed during their lifetimes have been targeted at diseases such as haemophilus influenzae meningitis that, while serious and anxiety provoking for pediatricians, occur so sporadically that most parents have no personal experience to motivate them to vaccinate their children.

Dr. Emmanuel and Mr. Guido are correct in advocating for the broader elimination of nonmedical exemptions and urging us to find the political will to vigorously enforce the vaccine requirements we have already enacted. I agree that our promotional campaigns need to be more robust. But, this will be a difficult challenge unless we can impress our audience with our straight talk and honesty. We must acknowledge and then explain why all vaccines are not created equal and that some are of more critical importance than others.

We are slowly learning that education isn't the cure-all for vaccine hesitancy we once thought it was. And using scare tactics can backfire and create dysfunctional anxiety. We must choosing our words and target audience carefully. And ... having the political will to force parents into doing the right thing will be critical if we wish to restore our vaccination rates.

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler." Other than a Littman stethoscope he accepted as a first-year medical student in 1966, Dr. Wilkoff reports having nothing to disclose. Email him at .

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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