Vaccination rates for kindergarten students in Tennessee are dropping—and have been declining for some time, according to officials who blame the drop in numbers on a general “distrust” of vaccines during the Covid 19 pandemic and a sharp jump in religious exemptions.
Sixty-nine counties—including Perry—are below the vaccination rate that state health officials would like to see. They have set a statewide goal of 95% kindergarten vaccination rate.
For the 2022-23 school year, Linden Elementary had a 91.7% vaccination rate. Of the 48 kindergarteners, 44 were full vaccinated. Three of the four that were not cited religious exemptions and one had a medical exemption.
At Lobelville School the vaccination rate was 93.8%; two of the schools 32 kindergarten students were not immunized. One claimed a religious exemption and the other had only a temporary certificate.
The county’s overall average vaccination rate for the total enrolled kindergarten students was 92.5%. Of course, with the low total enrollment numbers Perry County has, a handful of unvaccinated students has a larger impact on the percentage rate.
The Tennessee Department of Health recently reported that vaccination rate have been dropping over the last three years. And while the department cannot name all the reasons why fewer kindergarten students are receiving immunizations, they see a clear association with the pandemic and a rise in religious exemptions.
The report also said that for a community to be at low risk for a highly infections, vaccine-preventable disease, like the measles, the threshold of a school should be 95% or higher.
Forty-three Tennessee counties met that threshold in 2021-22, a large decrease from 2020-21 when 72 of the state’s 95 counties had a vaccination rate of 95% or higher.
“Unfortunately, the lower vaccination trend for our children has worsened recently, during and after the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. Jayesh Patel, of TriStar Hendersonville Medical Center and TriStar Skyline Medical Center, told The Tennessean.
“The virus’s origin, its treatments and immunization using the modern mRNA became hot items for political activists and the anti-vaccine groups got fresh energy. They became more active and more influential, and their messages made parents more hesitant in getting their children immunized.”
“I grew up in India and Africa, my basic medical schooling was in Africa and I’m a postgraduate in tropical diseases from London,” Patel said, pointing out that diseases he dealt with during his training were once widespread in the U.S., but “due to vaccination, they have become so rare. They still are quite common in developing countries where I have been.”
“I’m very worried that if we don’t get our vaccination rates up…common diseases can come back and spread rapidly into the community if we don’t have enough herd immunity to reach immunization,” he said. “It’s a real possibility.”
Specifically, Patel mentioned as examples: polio, tetanus, rabies, and measles that maimed and killed children in the past.
Because such outbreaks aren’t as common in the U.S., Patel said there can be a false sense of security in certain communities, which further adds to the problem of declining vaccination rates.
“I do sincerely hope that our scientists, pediatricians, infectious disease experts, public health experts, schoolteachers as well as health organizations and societies can be more effective in getting the message across to parents to protect their children and future generations by getting their children immunized as per the current guidelines,” he said.