In a sign that suggests many American parents have become dubious about the safety of childhood vaccines, new government data shows that immunization exemptions for kindergartners have reached their highest levels ever.
The latest statistics continue a decline in routine vaccinations for kids that increases the risk for highly contagious diseases, such as measles, to spread, the report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned.
How much of a spike in vaccine exemptions was seen? The overall percentage of kindergartners with a vaccination exemption increased from 2.6% during the 2021-2022 school year to 3% in 2022-2023, the highest exemption rate ever tallied in the United States.
As for why childhood vaccination rates keep dropping, "It is not clear whether this reflects a true increase in opposition to vaccination, or if parents are opting for non-medical exemptions because of barriers to vaccination or out of convenience," the report said.
Still, a 2022 survey conducted by the healthcare research nonprofit KFF found the debate over COVID vaccine mandates may have shaped some parents' attitudes. Among those who identified as Republicans or leaned Republican, 44% said parents should be allowed to skip childhood vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella, even if remaining unvaccinated may create health risks for others. That's more than double the 20% who felt that way in 2019.
Other factors may be fueling the vaccine hesitancy trend. Early in the pandemic, many families had trouble scheduling well-child visits because doctors' offices were closed, the Washington Post reported. Once children fall behind on their shots, it's often harder for parents to find time to catch up, doctors have said.
All states and the District of Columbia require schoolchildren to be vaccinated against certain diseases, including measles, whooping cough and polio. They must report yearly data to the CDC on the number of children in kindergarten who meet those requirements or who receive exemptions. All states grant exemptions based on medical reasons, but a growing number also allow exemptions based on religious or philosophical reasons, the Post reported.
And the more exemptions, the lower the vaccine coverage.
National vaccine coverage among kindergartners fell from 95% before the pandemic to 93% in the 2019-2020 and 2021-2022 school years, according to the report, which was published Friday in the CDC publication Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Coverage stayed at 93% during the last school year.
While a two percentage point drop may seem small, even the slightest decline in vaccination coverage can threaten herd immunity, experts say.
For measles, a drop below 95% vaccination coverage in a community means "you have enough people that an outbreak can start -- you just need a spark," Kelly Moore, chief executive of Immunize.org, told the Post.
Measles is so contagious that people who may not know they are exposed can become infected and spread the virus to family members or other contacts before they show symptoms. Measles can cause serious complications, such as pneumonia, swelling of the brain called encephalitis, and death, according to the CDC.
In recent years, the United States has experienced several measles outbreaks in communities where vaccination rates have been low.
"This continuing erosion of immunization coverage rates in kindergarten is really alarming," Moore said.
School entry vaccination requirements have long been a way to ensure that classrooms are a healthy learning environment for everyone, Moore said. When that safety net erodes, viruses will once again spread, she added.
According to the CDC report, vaccination exemptions increased in 41 states, with 10 states showing exemption rates exceeding 5% for kindergartners last school year.
Visit the CDC for more on childhood vaccinations.
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