Viral diseases surging

But Chatham’s kids bucking trends


If there’s growing vaccine hesitancy among parents in some pockets of the U.S., data suggests that’s not necessarily true in Chatham County — where child immunization rates remain higher than N.C.’s overall rate.

Still, growing cases of viral diseases among children are trends local health care professionals are watching.

Johnsie Hubble, the infection preventionist and employee health director at Chatham Hospital in Siler City, pointed to recent national stories about the resurgence of viral diseases such as varicella (chickenpox), measles, mumps and rubella (German measles) in the U.S.

Included was a Dec. 26 article in The Washington Post which cited growing anti-vaccine sentiment — driven by the pandemic and the politicization of the COVID-19 vaccine and school mandates — among some parents. A resultant drop in child immunization rates in pockets of the U.S. has led to higher numbers of measles and chickenpox cases and more hospitalizations.

“The article notes that there is more hesitancy to vaccinate children for routine childhood vaccines, and this is concerning that it may result in more outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases,” Hubble said. “There is an outbreak of varicella in Ohio among children whose parents opted not to vaccinate them. The pandemic has magnified this due to a lot of misinformation around COVID vaccines.”

Hubble quoted the article as saying most of the sentiments against vaccine mandates are among those “who identify as Republican or lean that way,” with that percentage doubling since the pandemic. 

A new Kaiser study found 44% of those surveyed felt parents should be able to opt out of childhood vaccines, up from just 20% pre-pandemic, according to the Washington Post story. It also said more than one-third of parents with children under the age of 18 should be able to opt out of vaccinating their children as a requirement for attending public schools, even if that meant creating health risks for others.

“And there are other diseases, such as polio, with a case in the northeast — not vaccinated — and testing now finding polio in wastewater in several states, including Michigan and Pennsylvania,” she said. “The hesitancy more Americans seem to have now to vaccination is believed to be causing these outbreaks. Lack of vaccines leads to more outbreaks and illnesses that can cause disability and death, especially among children.”

In Chatham County, 90% of all children ages 2 to 3 received required vaccinations in 2020, including the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) and varicella (chicken pox) vaccines — compared to 73% statewide, said Zachary Horner, the public information specialist for the Chatham County Public Health Department. A year later, those numbers had fallen to 86% in Chatham County and 72% statewide, a number Horner attributed in part to delays in vaccination appointments related to the pandemic.

“We’re so grateful to the Chatham County parents and guardians who have gotten their children and young ones vaccinated on time and thoroughly,” Horner said. “This consistently-high uptake rate — we’ve been at 86% or better for at least the last 10 years — is likely one of the reasons why we’ve been able to avoid the outbreaks we’re seeing in other places.”

Still, he said, the CCPHD shares the same concerns other public health departments and medical experts have expressed over increasing vaccine hesitancy and skepticism.

“There’s no doubt mis- and dis-information about COVID vaccines have spread to other vaccines as well, especially childhood ones,” Horner said. “We’ve seen mis- and dis-information before in public health, but social media broadens the reach of those messages and leaves many people vulnerable to bad actors spreading false information.”

Horner said the facts “clearly state” childhood vaccines, including the MMR, varicella, and combined MMRV shots, keep children from contracting those illnesses, which can become serious.

“We could cite a lot of data, but perhaps one of the best places to look is how these diseases have, for the most part, nearly evaporated in the United States,” he said. “The U.S. began a chickenpox vaccination program in 1995. At the time, there were more than 4 million cases, more than 10,000 hospitalizations, and up to 150 deaths a year from chickenpox.”

As of 2020, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control, there were fewer than 150,000 cases, less than 1,400 hospitalizations, and less than 30 deaths from the disease, he said.

“It’s that simple,” Horner said. “Vaccination saves lives.”

The CCPHD offers the MMR and varicella vaccines at its Siler City clinic every weekday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. If your child has not yet received these important vaccines, he said, “we urge you to act now.”

For more information, call 919-742-5641.