Childhood Immunization Rate Improves After 2020 Decline

August is one of the busiest months for vaccinations as kids head back to school.

Black doctor vaccinating a Black toddler

Childhood immunization rates in Arkansas declined dramatically last summer as families kept kids home to avoid exposure to COVID-19. By the end of August 2020, health care workers had administered 102,100 fewer shots than the same time in 2019 and 82,388 fewer than 2018. 

The significant decrease was a big concern for health officials, but more shots were administered in the second half of the year making up for some of the loss, said Dr. Joel Tumlison, medical director for child and adolescent health at the Arkansas Department of Health. Although roughly 185,800 fewer shots were given to children in 2020 than 2019, the situation was not as bad as health officials anticipated.

“By the end of the year, doctors and clinics had done a great job getting those kids back in and getting them caught up on vaccines,” Tumlison said.

Childhood vaccination rates during the first four months of 2021 were comparable to 2019 rates. As of the end of July, 627,249 vaccines have been administered to children younger than 19, according to provisional data from ADH. That total is higher than from the same time period in 2018-2020 likely because of the introduction of the COVID-19 vaccine. The Pfizer vaccine was approved for kids as young as 12 in May.

To attend school in Arkansas, students are required to receive a series of vaccines that protect against diseases like measles, whooping cough and chickenpox. Medical, religious or philosophical exemptions are allowed, but generally vaccinations are required to prevent the spread of disease.

“The idea is some of these diseases are really nasty and we do not want kids getting them,” Tumlison said. “Some of these we’ve kind of forgotten about because we’ve never seen them in our lifetime…they’re forgotten about because the vaccines have made them go away or almost go away.”

By limiting a children’s risk of infection, immunizations can help kids stay healthy and in the classroom where they can learn. Arkansas parents have become familiar with students missing out on in-person instruction during the pandemic due to illness or quarantine after exposure to COVID-19.

“Imagine that for eight different other things if they were really happening at once,” Tumlison said. “There would be a lot of kids out of school missing education that they need and all the services that schools provide.”

As of yesterday, 111,652 children 12 to 18 years old have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and 65,736 have received both doses, according to an ADH spokesperson. The COVID-19 vaccine is not required to attend public school in Arkansas, but many other vaccines are. Children entering kindergarten are required to have the following:

— Four doses of Diphtheria/Tetanus/Acellular Pertussis (DTaP), Diphtheria/Tetanus/Pertussis (DTP), or Diphtheria/Tetanus (DT pediatric) vaccine

— Three doses of Polio vaccine

— Three doses of Hepatitis B vaccine

— Two doses of MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine; Exception: If a student has previously received two doses of measles, one dose of mumps and one dose of rubella before Jan. 1, 2010, the doses will be accepted as compliant to immunization requirements and two MMRs are not required.

— Two doses of Varicella (chickenpox) vaccine; A medical professional’s history of disease may be accepted in lieu of the vaccine.

— One dose of Hepatitis A vaccine

Later on, one or two doses of Meningococcal vaccine are also required with one dose for 7th grade and a second dose at age 16. However, if the first dose of Meningococcal vaccine is administered at age 16 years or older, no second dose is required; or if not vaccinated prior to age 16 years, one dose is required.

The Arkansas Board of Health decides what vaccinations are required for schools. These requirements generally are in line with what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends as age appropriate, Tumlison said. The board also has the authority to discuss and implement additional immunization requirements as newer versions of vaccines are developed. 

With parents gearing up for the back-to-school season, August tends to be the biggest month of the year in terms of vaccinations. Approximately 20 to 25 percent more childhood immunizations are administered during August, Tumlison said.

If parents still need to get their children vaccinated, they can make an appointment with their pediatrician or through one of ADH’s local health units. More information is available on the Arkansas Department of Health’s website.

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.