As misinformation about COVID spreads in Louisiana, officials fear it could harm other childhood vaccines

During the delta’s surge of the summer, Dr. Mark Kline watched the intensive care unit at the New Orleans Children’s Hospital fill up with patients, some under a year old. Some who died.

As the hospital’s chief medical officer, he has become a tough voice on Twitter, urging the public to take it seriously the number of pediatric bodies of the pandemic and get vaccinated.

But instead, Louisiana’s vaccination rates have stagnated. And in children from 5 to 11 years old, only 5% received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as of Dec. 1 – one of the lowest rates in the country, and a figure Kline called “pathetic.”

At the same time, the effort to vaccinate children against COVID-19 sparked a political battle in Louisiana – particularly just before Governor John Bel Edwards COVID-19 vaccines announced would be added to the list of compulsory vaccines for school-aged children. But pediatricians and state officials fear that a threat looming beyond the current pandemic looms.

“The threat to vaccinations in general right now is out of reach,” Kline said.

Kline is concerned that the same misinformation that fuels skepticism and politicization about the COVID-19 vaccine will spread and ultimately undermine confidence in all vaccines. If that happens and fewer children receive the regular immunization schedule, he said a host of illnesses could reappear.

“Are we going to go back to a time when we have children in this country dying of measles and paralyzed from polio?” Kline asked. “I’m not trying to be dramatic about this, but the ramifications are potentially huge. Epidemics of diphtheria again, paralytic polio in infants.

Blocking vaccinations during the pandemic

Louisiana law currently requires seven vaccines for a multitude of educational settings, ranging from kindergarten and kindergarten to grade 12 up to university level.

The state tends to lag behind national averages for childhood vaccines, but then surpasses national averages when children enter kindergarten and are required to show proof of their vaccination or exemption, Dr Joseph said. Kanter, head of public health.

Immunization rates also vary widely from parish to parish and tend to be higher in public schools than in private schools. For the 2019 to 2020 school year, vaccination rates in private kindergarten schools ranged from 69% in Saint-Bernard parish to 100% in Assomption. For most parishes, vaccination rates in public schools were in the 1990s.

These figures are crucial because the vaccination rates required for herd immunity are high, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics: for measles, it is 95%; for polio, it’s 80%. Estimates for COVID-19 range from 70% to 85%.

But in July, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a report warning of a dramatic drop in childhood vaccinations at the start of the pandemic.

The report blamed missed doctor’s appointments due to loss of health care coverage or financial hardship. He noted a drop of 11.7 million doses of non-influenza childhood vaccines across the country in 2020 compared to 2019.

Louisiana may have been hit harder than the national average, according to data from the Department of Health.

It found that children who turned 2 in 2020 had an 89.9% vaccination rate for at least one dose of the MMR vaccine, which protects against measles, mumps and rubella. That’s lower than the U.S. average of 92.8% in 2020, and lower than Louisiana’s 2019 rate of 94.6%.

More recent data shows flu shots in Louisiana are declining even in 2021. The state counted 762,552 flu shots in 2019, 772,001 in 2020 and only 573,343 in 2021, according to data provided by the ministry. of Health.

Other factors could play a role in these numbers, said Dr. Rachel Chatters, a pediatrician from Lake Charles and chief of the Louisiana section of the American Academy of Pediatrics, particularly the hurricanes that ravaged the southern part of the country. Status in 2020. But data shows children in Louisiana are at risk for epidemics.

Chatters said pediatricians statewide are working to keep children up to date on their immunizations, but it’s a catch-up game.

Anti-vaccine activists in Louisiana

Anti-vaccine misinformation has taken a new place in state policy at a recent hearing of the House Health and Welfare Committee, when Attorney General Jeff Landry Robert F. Kennedy Jr., one of the country’s most famous anti-vaccine campaigners who has been discredited for spreading misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines and other injections.

The hearing centered on the Louisiana Department of Health’s plan to include fully approved COVID-19 vaccines by the United States Food and Drug Administration in the regular childhood immunization schedule required for schools, although state law allows broad exemptions for religious, medical or philosophical reasons. .

In a largely symbolic gesture, a majority of committee members voted against the rule, and a week later Edwards announced it would go into effect.

For now, that means only children 16 and older will need to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or provide a letter of exemption for the 2022 school year. Kline said he supports the rule, as does Dr. Joseph Bocchini – a pediatric infectious disease specialist in Louisiana since 1977.

“There is no doubt that school mandates have been a critical part of the success of our immunization program in the United States,” said Bocchini, also vice president of the Louisiana section of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

But the meeting went beyond a discussion of the requirement. It included a lengthy presentation by Kennedy, accompanied by posters, alleging a host of false claims about the COVID-19 vaccine. Kline watched.

“The lies were coming so quickly that even though I was taking notes, I could barely keep up. It was like one per minute, ”Kline said. “I really thought it was embarrassing and shameful for our condition.”

The presentation summarized how anti-vaccine campaigners are raising objections and concerns about their merit or not, he said.

Kanter – who was called to testify nearly two hours after the meeting began – said it was of particular concern that Kennedy was placed “center stage.” He said Kennedy’s presentation had “chosen” data to make it appear factual.

“If you look at this individual and his background, he’s done the exact same thing with countless vaccines. It has been at the center of myths and misinformation about other vaccines that have really hurt families, ”Kanter said.

Kennedy is the founder of Children’s Health Defense, a group that promotes misinformation about vaccines and their links to autism, among other things – claims vigorously rejected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Autism Society of America, who declares straightforwardly that “there has never been any credible scientific or medical evidence linking vaccinations to autism.”

During the committee hearing, the slides of Kennedy’s presentation were tweeted by Health Freedom Louisiana. The private organization is the leading state-level organization fighting against COVID-19 vaccination mandates and public health measures, including mask requirements.

Since the start of the pandemic, the group has worked on a series of bills aimed at restricting vaccination mandates and advanced, unproven vaccine safety claims during previous committee hearings. A review of his Facebook page shows that his influence has increased. It had 5,112 subscribers in August 2020 and now has more than 13,000. Health Freedom Louisiana did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

On Twitter, the group is pushing the hashtag #fireKanter, in reference to the public health officer.

The group also re-tweeted Dr. Robert Malone, a scientist who helped create mRNA technology and recently repeated misinformation about COVID vaccines, including that they could make infections worse.

Malone was also guest of Landry’s during the committee hearing, and he wrote that he, Kennedy and Landry – the most powerful Republican in the state – had strategized on how to tackle the COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

“COVID has catalyzed the anti-vaccine and anti-science movement,” said Kline, who added that the movement has “become a central part of the anti-government movement.”

Kline said this creates a threat far beyond the immediate pandemic.

“It must be perhaps the lowest point in modern American medicine and public health history. I cannot think of a lower point in our history,” he said.

Chatters said she was trying to avoid the politicization of vaccines.

“I want to have scientific conversations about vaccinations, and I want to answer really legitimate questions about the vaccines themselves,” she said.

She is concerned that including COVID-19 vaccines in the immunization schedule may decrease the need for all childhood vaccinations.

Kanter said it was too early to say whether or to what extent vaccinations in general are affected by COVID skepticism, vaccine campaigners and misinformation, particularly on social media.

But Chatters said she had already seen evidence of decreased uptake of other vaccines.

“I worry a lot about this,” she said. “I can tell from the number of flu shots I have given this year that this number is much less. And I attribute some of that to the conversations people can have around vaccines in general. “

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