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Minnesota Opinion: Polio is back — so, too, must be childhood immunizations

From the editorial: "There was a time, not long ago, when few parents questioned the clear wisdom shared by medical professionals to vaccinate their 2- to 2½-year-olds against serious diseases. We should no longer be worrying about ailments like whooping cough, diphtheria, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, and chickenpox — not with readily available vaccinations, which constitute 'one of the greatest medical advances we have.' ... We shouldn’t be going backward in 2022."

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As frighteningly deadly and nightmarishly horrible as it was, polio was eradicated in the United States generations ago. Wiped out. Gone. So doctors like Gretchen Karstens, a pediatrician at St. Luke’s in Duluth, long have liked to point to polio as an obvious, no-duh reason for parents to immunize their children.

Minnesota Opinion editorial
Minnesota Opinion editorial
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“That was always my fallback, ‘Well, nobody wants polio. Nobody wants lockjaw’,” Dr. Karstens said in an interview this past week with the Duluth News Tribune Opinion page. “Vaccinations are incredibly powerful tools at our disposal.”

Or should be.

This month, though, news broke that polio was back in the United States. The polio virus has been circulating in New York since at least April, according to the CDC.

At least just as concerning, in St. Louis County, after childhood immunization rates had steadily improved year to year from 61.6% in 2015 to 71.7% in 2018, a 17% rise, those rates suddenly dropped in 2019 for the first time in at least half a decade, to 70.5%, a troubling 2% backslide. (The numbers are from the Minnesota Department of Health’s Minnesota Immunization Information Connection. )

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Even more concerning, amidst all the misinformed noise regarding vaccinations during COVID-19, childhood immunization rates in St. Louis County slipped even further, to 69%, as county Public Health Planner Katie Albert reported to the Opinion page.

And it’s not just here. A report this summer from the World Health Organization and United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund said we are in the midst of “the largest sustained decline in childhood vaccinations in approximately 30 years.”

“We’re seeing a backslide, which is concerning,” Essentia pediatrician Dr. Jonathan KenKnight stated. “We really just can’t let our guard down.”

On the doorstep of another school year seems an ideal moment for a reminder to parents and others that immunizing children is safe and has saved millions of lives over decades.

Yes, rare adverse effects can happen, and they tend to get more attention than they deserve. During the pandemic they found an unprecedented platform, from which misinformation, unnecessary doubts, and unfortunate decisions were spread.

From the column: "Science, as they say, is seldom settled, and doctors and health officials would better serve the public by regularly saying so. ... It would certainly increase my confidence in getting our well-check appointments back on the calendar."

“Compared to 50 years ago, we’re in an awesome spot, but we can’t forget the progress that we’ve made for fear of these little things that are trivial compared to what it used to be,” said Dr. KenKnight.

Added Dr. Karstens: “People got out of the habit of coming to the doctor (during the pandemic), but I think more what happened is that we are in a period of so much questioning and doubt about, ‘What information can I trust? Who can I trust to give it to me? People tell me this is science, but what does science mean?’ I think we have a little bit of a crisis of confidence in the people we have traditionally looked to to be our givers of advice, our trustworthy sources, like our doctors. We as physicians continue to work hard to be trustworthy and to provide responsible information.”

There was a time, not long ago, when few parents questioned the clear wisdom shared by medical professionals to vaccinate their 2- to 2½-year-olds against serious diseases. We should no longer be worrying about ailments like whooping cough, diphtheria, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, and chickenpox — not with readily available vaccinations, which constitute “one of the greatest medical advances we have,” according to Dr. Karstens. We shouldn’t be going backward in 2022.

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For every parent who chooses not to vaccinate a child, though, every one of us has another reason for fear: “It doesn’t just protect you or your child, it protects your community,” as Albert said of immunizations. “That’s a big thing that I don’t know if people have forgotten or just don't think about. It’s not just about you and your child, (when you opt for childhood immunizations), you are doing something to help your community as a whole.”

And you’re saving lives.

This Minnesota Opinion editorial is the view of the Duluth News Tribune Editorial Board.

Related Topics: HEALTHMINNESOTA OPINION
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