By Amy Harris
The pandemic has made vaccination a major topic of interest all around the world. Unfortunately, along with the successful vaccination of millions of adults and children for COVID-19, the attention to vaccines has also brought misinformation campaigns leading to misunderstandings on the part of a sizeable segment of the population, and an increase in some people’s distrust of all vaccines – not only toward COVID-19 vaccines. In fact, many people seem to have forgotten the long history of impressive public health vaccination successes that for decades have protected people from serious diseases. And many adults and children have fallen behind in their vaccines.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF report that the pandemic and associated disruptions over the past two years resulted in an estimated 25 million children worldwide missing out on standard vaccinations in 2021 – the highest number in a single year since 2009. For school-age children living in Maine, overall statewide vaccination coverage rates have remained relatively high (93.8% – 97%) through the pandemic, as tracked by the Maine Immunization Program (MIP), with no significant decline during 2019-2020 and 2020-2021. The vaccination rate for entering kindergarteners, however, fell below the number needed to achieve herd immunity against measles, mumps, rubella, polio, diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis. Herd immunity is achieved when enough members of a community are vaccinated so that community outbreaks no longer happen. Maine may be facing more outbreaks of disease as a result of the lack of herd immunity.
Vaccines also help keep older adults healthy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all adults over age 65 have the following vaccines: pneumococcal, shingles, annual influenza (flu shot), and COVID-19 vaccine and boosters, along with Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis) every 10 years. Pneumococcal disease is a serious infection that causes pneumonia, meningitis, blood infection, and other less severe illnesses. There are flu vaccines specially designed for people aged 65 and older. Vaccines can be life-saving for seniors with chronic health conditions such as heart disease or diabetes.
All vaccines trigger immunity and, according to the WHO, vaccines prevent an estimated 3.5-5 million deaths annually from disease. In a global community where people migrate, routine vaccination programs reduce the spread of disease. How long immunity lasts after vaccination varies from person to person and virus to virus. Viruses that replicate quickly and frequently mutate, like those that cause the flu and COVID-19, require more frequent updates (like a system upgrade for a smartphone). Every year there are multiple new strains of flu, so doctors recommend annual flu shots. And some vaccines – not just the COVID 19 ones – need boosters. Sometimes people assume that vaccines are less effective if they need a booster, but this is not true.
The U.S. federal government requires that all immigrant applicants who apply to immigrate to the U.S. from abroad receive a medical exam before or upon arrival in the U.S. During the medical exam, applicants must show proof of vaccination for mumps, measles, rubella (MMR); polio; tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (Tdap or DtaP vaccines), Haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib); hepatitis A, hepatitis B, rotavirus, meningococcal disease, varicella, pneumococcal disease, seasonal influenza (flu shot), and COVID-19 (as of October 1, 2021). Doctors vaccinate applicants at the medical exam if they do not have proof of each vaccination.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all adults over age 65 have the following vaccines: pneumococcal, shingles, annual influenza (flu shot), and COVID-19 vaccine and boosters, along with Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis) every 10 years
Refugees receive vaccines in programs run by asylum countries, through refugee camp vaccination programs, or during the overseas health assessment as part of the Vaccination Program for US-Bound Refugees (VCF). Once in the U.S., applicants must show proof of age-appropriate vaccination to obtain a green card. The Vaccines for Children program (VCF) provides vaccines at no cost to children immigrating to the U.S. According to Charles Mugabe, Program Co-Director at Catholic Charities Maine, most newly arrived immigrants to Maine are accustomed to vaccines and do not question these requirements. VCF also provides free vaccines to children 18 years and younger who are uninsured, underinsured, eligible for Medicaid (called MaineCare in Maine), Native American, or Alaska Native.
Vaccines save lives, especially among the youngest, oldest, and sickest members of Maine’s communities. Unfortunately, because the past few years have been so difficult, many people are suffering from both vaccine fatigue and COVID-19 fatigue, and are avoiding vaccination. But in the words of Sarah Lewis of Maine Access Immigrant Network (MAIN), “I understand that we’re tired, but please, let’s not give up on all vaccines just because we are tired of hearing about the COVID vaccines!”
Staying current on recommended vaccinations keeps people healthy and protects those at the greatest risk for disease or death. Community health outreach workers (CHOWs) around the state, including those working for MAIN, the Portland Department of Public Health, Catholic Charities, and dozens of other community-based organizations are available to educate people about vaccines other than COVID-19. The Maine Immunization Program (MIP) currently employs two vaccine educators and plans to hire two more, according to Caitlyn Anton, MIP’s Adult Vaccine Coordinator. Health providers agree that when people get their flu or COVID-19 booster, they should also make sure that they – and all their family members – are up-to-date with other vaccinations. Regular healthcare appointments are opportunities to review one’s vaccination history and catch up on previously missed vaccines.