Advice from well-trusted, caring health care professionals is the best way to reverse the decline in childhood immunizations, according to respected experts both national and local who participated in Thursday’s Vaccine Summit.

Meningitis. Paralysis. Lingering effects like these will become more common if the decline continues, the panelists said. Vaccination is not just about preventing death but also about reducing the long-term effects the diseases cause.

Talking of why he got his own children vaccinated against the coronavirus, former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams said, “I don’t think they’re going to die (from COVID-19) but I don’t want them to get long COVID” with its lingering effects that can include brain damage.

The Wayne County Health Department brought together experts to encourage local efforts to reverse the decline in vaccination rates. Those joining Dr. Adams as panelists included Indiana Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box, associate professor Katharine Head, Wayne County Health Officer Dr. David Jetmore, Wayne County Health Board President Dr. Paul Rider, and Indiana Health Department Immunization Director Dr. David McCormick.

Head, who chairs the advisory committee for the Indiana Immunization Coalition, agreed with Dr. Adams that vaccine hesitancy is not new but is worse now because of becoming politicized during the coronavirus pandemic. She defined vaccine hesitancy as a delay in acceptance or refusal of vaccinations despite the availability of vaccination services.

“The gap between Republicans and Democrats on flu shots is 20 percentage points more than it was pre-pandemic,” she said. “A strong recommendation from a trusted health care provider is associated with higher vaccination uptake.”

Dr. Rider, a Health Board member since 1991, said he retired as a pediatrician 10 years ago. “I was seeing hesitancy even then,” noting that the slowest acceptance came after the 1995 introduction of the chickenpox vaccine. “Before vaccines, I was seeing meningitis every winter. After them, I was not.”

Meningitis is a painful and sometimes fatal swelling of brain tissue that can be caused by viruses or bacteria. It can result in brain damage or death.

Dr. Adams, now serving as Purdue University’s director of health equity initiatives, said the World Health Organization estimates that “upward of 25 million kids missed their vaccinations in the past year, 4 million more than the previous year. We’ve got to get them back or we’re going to get back to the (19)30s and 40s” in terms of health outcomes.

Dr. Jetmore, a Richmond-based doctor for nearly 50 years, agreed, remembering his childhood visit to a person who had been confined to an iron lung machine – a ventilator used to stimulate breathing — after having polio.

People have largely forgotten about the effects of diseases which have been largely eliminated during the past 70 years, and so more people in this generation of parents don’t see the need for immunization. That’s coupled with misinformation – bad stories — and disinformation – made up stories intended to influence outcomes — about vaccinations.

Many of the about 40 people attending the summit are involved in health care in some way. Dr. Adams said they are the key to reversing the immunization decline. People will respond to advice from a professional they trust

Referring to Dr. Anthony Fauci, who became well known as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the U.S. National Institutes of Health during the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Adams said, “As much as people want Dr. Fauci or me to tell them to get vaccinated, they really want to hear it from you.”

Dr. Box spoke of Indiana’s record in public health. Life expectancy in the state varies widely from county to county in a direct relation to the amount of tax money available for spending on public health.

“Life expectancy in Indiana has been decreasing. Our life expectancy of 77 years in 2017 was almost two years below the national,” she said. In Wayne County, life expectancy was 74.3 years; in Hamilton County, the state’s wealthiest, 81.5 years.

She said the state needs to allocate more resources to health in the same way as it spends to make Indiana attractive to business development. The funding must go to local health departments, which are key to delivering services.

The Indiana Department of Health has been working to increase vaccine availability. During a six-week Smart Start campaign, the state Health Department helped conduct immunization clinics in all 92 counties, vaccinating 144,983 children, including 1,565 in Wayne County. The campaign will be repeated yearly, she said.

“But the work is not done,” she continued. “We’ve got to have vaccination clinics in the schools … and where people can get to them.”

Dr. Adams concluded by saying the best way for people to protect themselves and their children from deadly or harmful illnesses is immunization.

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Bob Hansen is a reporter for the Western Wayne News.