“Vaccine hesitancy” is a phrase I didn’t hear much of prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but now it’s a word we hear all the time. There were always families who did not vaccinate their children; I remember a friend in high school whose mother got her an exemption. I also remember that when I worked for one of the local Denver TV news stations, we discussed a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study that found Colorado had one of the lowest vaccination rates in the nation. This study was done prior to the pandemic. So, the idea of opting out of vaccines is not new, but it does seem to have been given new life since the COVID-19 vaccine was first released to the public in early 2021.
While gathering information for a Colorado Access newsletter, I was able to gain the following information. The Healthcare Effectiveness Data and Information Set (HEDIS), looked at immunization rates in 2020, 2021, and 2022 for Colorado Access members. The “Combination 10” is a set of vaccines that includes: four diphtheria, tetanus, and acellular pertussis, three inactivated polio, one measles, mumps, and rubella, three haemophilus influenzae type b, three hepatitis B, one varicella, four pneumococcal conjugate, two to three rotavirus, one hepatitis A, and two influenza vaccines. In 2020, approximately 54% of Colorado Access members received their “Combination 10” vaccine on time. In 2021, the number dipped to approximately 47%, and in 2022, it was down to approximately 38%.
To some degree, I can understand why many children got behind on their vaccines in the first place. At the time of the outbreak, I had two stepsons, both of whom already had all the vaccines they needed to attend school. My biological son was not yet born. So, the issue was not really one that I dealt with on a personal level. However, I can put myself in the shoes of a parent who is due for a well visit that includes a vaccine at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when a lot of uncertainty still surrounded the virus and its effect on children. I can imagine wanting to skip that visit to the doctor’s office, picturing my child sitting next to another sick child and contracting a possibly deadly disease. I could see myself reasoning that my child would likely be attending virtual school anyway, so the vaccine could wait until they returned to the classroom in person
While I can understand why parents delayed some immunizations during the pandemic, and even why it can sometimes be a little daunting to have your child injected with multiple different shots at an appointment every few months as an infant, I also know how important it is to get vaccines for myself and for my child.
One thing that has highlighted this to me most recently is the creation of the first respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) vaccine, approved in May 2023. My biological son was born prematurely at 34 weeks of gestation. Because of that, along with the fact that he was born in Colorado at a higher altitude, he had to use an oxygen tank off and on until he was two months old. He was hospitalized right after he turned one month old because the doctors feared he had contracted a respiratory virus and as a “preemie” they wanted him and his oxygen levels closely monitored. I was told in the emergency room at Children’s Hospital Colorado that a child is considered a preemie and is treated differently until they are about one year old.
Because of his history, I really hope that he will be able to get the RSV vaccine. Its availability is not widespread yet, and there is an age cut off at eight months old. Even though he is past that in his chronological age, the doctor will give it to him until he reaches an “adjusted age” of eight months (this means when he reaches eight months past his due date. His adjusted age is five weeks behind his chronological age, so he is running out of time).
I was first told about the vaccine at his six-month well visit. I’ll admit many thoughts ran through my head as the doctor described this vaccine that was released only weeks before. I wondered if the long-term effects had been studied, whether he should get a vaccine that is so new and hasn’t been through the RSV season yet, and whether it was safe in general. But at the end of the day, I know that his contracting such a highly contagious and dangerous virus is too great to risk, and I don’t want him to go through this winter exposed to that possibility if I can help it.
I can also attest to the importance of getting myself vaccinated. In 2019, I took a trip to Morocco with some friends and woke up one morning to find myself covered in itchy bumps on my face, down my neck, on my back, and on my arm. I wasn’t sure what caused these bumps; I had ridden a camel and been in the desert the day before, and perhaps some bug had bitten me. I wasn’t sure if there were any insects that carried diseases in that area, so I was a little concerned and monitored myself for signs of illness or fever. Even so, I suspected they may have been caused by bedbugs, based on the fact that they were located in the exact areas that had touched the bed. When I returned to Colorado, I saw my doctor who advised me not to get the flu shot until some time had passed, because it would be hard to tell if the symptoms were caused by my flu shot or something related to the bites.
Well, I ended up forgetting to go back for the shot and got the flu. It was terrible. For weeks and weeks, I had so much mucus; I was using paper towels to blow my nose and cough up phlegm because tissues just weren’t cutting it. I thought my cough would never end. Even a month after I contracted the flu, I struggled while trying to do a very easy snowshoeing trail. From then on, I have been diligent about getting a flu shot every autumn. While it could have been worse than getting the flu, it was a good reminder that getting the virus is so much worse than getting the shot. The benefits outweigh any small risks associated with the vaccine.
If you are unsure about getting a COVID-19, flu, or any other vaccine, talking to your doctor for more information is also a good first step. Colorado Access also has information on safety and how to get vaccinated and there are countless other resources, including the CDC website, if you have questions about immunizations, how they work, and more. If you’re looking for a place to get your vaccine, the CDC also has a vaccine finder tool.