By Dr. Michael D. Warren, Pediatrician and Associate Administrator for the Maternal and Child Health Bureau at HRSA
As the new school year starts, it’s not only time for fresh notebooks and sharpened pencils. It’s also time to make sure students and families stay healthy with pediatric vaccinations and routine check-ups.
Since the start of the pandemic, too many children have missed vaccinations. In fact, some routine childhood vaccinations are down by as much as 20 percent. This leaves our children and communities vulnerable to preventable diseases like measles, whooping cough, and seasonal flu.
Too many children have also missed well-child visits due to the pandemic. While 27 percent of white children missed check-ups, 33 percent of African American children and 35 percent of Latinx/Hispanic children lost out on these visits, another part of the disturbing disparity in preventive care.
In addition, many children aren’t fully vaccinated against COVID-19. As of October 2021, only 46 percent of kids ages 12 to 15 and only 54 percent of kids ages 16 to 17 are fully vaccinated.
We must work to reverse these trends. Routine pediatric visits and vaccinations are one of the best ways to ensure that kids can return to school successfully. Healthy kids can enjoy the best parts of childhood – playing with friends, participating in sports, and connecting with teachers. Well-child visits also allow parents to support their child’s physical and behavioral well-being. Parents can ask questions about nutrition and safety or any other issues. Children can receive appropriate screenings for developmental delays, behavioral or mental health concerns.
The Health Resources and Services Administration supports a variety of creative, pro-active efforts to increase the number of children getting vaccinated against COVID-19 and other preventable childhood diseases through the Title V Maternal and Child Health Block Grant Program.
For example, the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Health is actively raising awareness about well-child visits and routine pediatric immunizations through a robust communications campaign directed towards families. To engage families in several school districts, they hosted a week of back-to-school activities that were COVID-safe and promoted positive messages about getting vaccines. Most successful was the “Back to School Backpack Giveaway” event featuring music, magicians, and visits with live cartoon characters like Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Participating children received a backpack of goodies, ice cream and balloons.
The Department of Health also created a public service announcement video to promote the message that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and everyone should get vaccinated. This video features a catchy jingle used on public service announcements on radio stations throughout the U.S. Virgin Islands territory. Finally, regular social media posts offer families information on when and where to get vaccinated and why it’s so important.
These creative ideas are exactly what we need to reverse the troubling pandemic-related trends. We are grateful to be able to partner with AMCHP on addressing these issues. Together, we can help kids stay safe, healthy and vaccinated this school year and beyond.