Vaccine Opposition Isn’t Why Many Thousands Of Kansans Miss Out On Shots

A vaccine refrigerator at a health clinic in the Coffeyville school district. CELIA LLOPIS-JEPSEN / KANSAS NEWS SERVICE

By Celia Llopis-Jepsen – Kansas News Service

Oklahoma, Missouri, Colorado.

The national measles outbreak — numbering more than 1,000 cases so far — hasn’t hit Kansas yet, but it has crept awfully close to home.

State health officials think a case in Kansas looks nearly inevitable. And the state’s annual survey of kindergartener vaccination rates suggests some counties do better than others at getting little kids their potentially life-saving shots of MMR vaccine.

But while measles snags all the headlines, doctors, nurses, and public health workers worry not just about that, but about other vaccine-preventable diseases that rarely raise the same alarms for the public.

The best evidence suggests hundreds of thousands of Kansans lack one shot or another — or several. Those inoculations have the potential to save lives from pneumonia, cancer and other threats.

Why so many under-vaccinated people?

The latest map of the 2019 measles outbreak. Kansas is in a shrinking minority of states without cases yet (light blue).
CREDIT CDC

As best as public health experts can tell, religious objections and the anti-vaccination movement account for just a tiny sliver of the myriad reasons.

More commonly, the obstacles involve busy work lives, rural distances, poverty, spotty vaccine records, health providers with gaps in vaccine stock or limited walk-in hours, and the public’s lack of knowledge about things like adult vaccine schedules.

Vaccine schedule for adults: What shots are recommended and when?

Schedule for children/teens: What shots are recommended and when?

Every age group is affected, from infants to the elderly. Though Kansas theoretically requires shots against illnesses such as measles, whooping cough and polio for school attendance, 15% of kindergartners last year weren’t up to date on those.

If this all sounds dismal, some public health experts see cause for optimism.

Changing the mind of someone truly opposed to vaccines can seem daunting, even amid outbreaks of illnesses such as measles. This despite the risks of foregoing shots: hospitalization, brain damage, deafness or even death. A 105-degree fever is common with measles, Mayo Clinic says.

“They cannot be swayed,” pediatrician Barbara Pahud said. “Focus on this ginormous group in the middle …. They’re already on board for some vaccines, so there is hope if you want to see it that way.”

That “ginormous” middle group of under- or unvaccinated people greatly outnumbers those who reject all vaccines based on religion or other beliefs. Researchers peg the latter group at just 1 to 3 percent of the population, said Pahud, a specialist in infectious diseases at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City and an associate professor at the University of Kansas and University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Read about the known side effects of specific vaccines here. No evidence links vaccines to autism, a myth that got its start with a debunked academic article. Read Autism Speaks’ FAQ page on what does and doesn’t cause autism here.

Numbers speak loudly

Health is a numbers game. You can’t be certain pneumonia won’t get you, but you can reduce your risk with two vaccines against bacterial pneumonia recommended for adults ages 65 and older. Bacterial pneumonia hospitalizes hundreds of thousands of Americans a year and kills tens of thousands.

Likewise, researchers estimate inoculation against the cancer-causing HPV virus would wipe out 80 percent of the tens of thousands of cancer cases it causes across the country each year. (The vast majority of people pick up HPV at some point in their lives, though most clear it out of their bodies naturally without necessarily ever knowing.)

“Just imagine: Almost everybody knows a woman who’s had an abnormal pap smear,” said Edward Ellerbeck, chair of preventive medicine and public health at KU’s School of Medicine. “And imagine now, ‘Oh, I don’t have to worry about abnormal pap smears.’”

The HPV vaccine eliminates the number one cause of those worrying results.

Kansas 52%
Nebraska 71%
Iowa 71%
Colorado 72%
Missouri 58%
Oklahoma 59%