The federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has issued a warning that childhood vaccinations have dropped by 50% nationwide — opening the door to a surge in diseases that have proven more dangerous to children than COVID-19.

Since the March declaration of a national emergency to cope with COVID-19, vaccination rates for things like measles, mumps, rubella, the flu, polio and other scourges of childhood have plunged.

School closures, a drop in doctor’s visits, losing health insurance and other disruptions of the health care system likely explain the decline.

That’s bad news for Gila County, which has a dangerously low vaccinate rate in the best of times.

For instance, even before the pandemic, the measles vaccination rate was only 66% in Gila County. The vaccination rate for the flu was just 17%, which could really increase the damage done by COVID-19 once the flu season resumes.

Overall, Gila County had a vaccination rate of about 50% for the full range of recommended shots. That’s well below the national average.

If the CDC estimates are correct, vaccination rates for most childhood diseases this year may fall well below 30%, opening the community to a whole series of easily preventable infectious diseases on top of COVID-19.

The CDC blamed the sharp drop in vaccination rates on the effects of school closures, stay-at-home orders and a national reluctance to go to the doctor for anything besides the symptoms of COVID-19.

Vaccination rates have declined for all age groups. Between 2016 and 2019 about two-thirds of children got the full schedule of recommended vaccinations — many of them necessary to enter school.

However, by May only 50% of children were getting the recommended vaccines on schedule. For the younger groups, in some cases only a third of children are now getting the life-saving vaccinations. The decline has been especially pronounced in children covered by Medicaid — which in Arizona is called the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS).

Once again, that’s very bad news for rural Arizona. More than a third of the children in Gila County get their health care through AHCCCS.

“As the nation continues efforts to mitigate transmission of SARS-CoV-2, disruption of essential health services might occur, including outpatient settings,” concluded researchers in the CDC’s weekly Morbidity and Mortality Report.

That’s just one disturbing new finding on the far-reaching effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is causing all kinds of potentially lethal side effects.

For instance, Arizona reported excess deaths in June far greater than the direct toll of COVID-19, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.

This year, the state recorded 6,365 deaths in June. By contrast, last June, the state recorded only 5,689 — a figure that’s been pretty reliable for the past five years. Diagnosed COVID-19 deaths accounted for roughly 1,000 of the 1,600 extra deaths.

No one’s sure how to account for the extra deaths. State health officials say they’ve seen a worrisome increase in clusters of suicides. Moreover, hospitals report a sharp decline in people seeking care for things like diabetes, heart disease and even cancer. It’s possible people are delaying, thereby letting chronic conditions get out of control. Alternatively, people may end up dying at home from COVID-19 without ever getting a test to confirm the cause of death. Arizona has also seen a surge in pneumonia deaths, which may also have a hidden link to COVID-19.

It’s also possible that the loss of health insurance by some 5 million people nationally due to job losses from shutdowns could also show up in both excess deaths and the alarming drop in childhood vaccination rates.

The rest of the world could see an even more tragic surge in deaths as the pandemic unhinges the already struggling medical systems in much of the world.

Health officials say that global killers like tuberculosis, HIV, and malaria have all started to surge, threatening to undo decades of progress. TB kills 1.5 million people globally every year, although extensive antibiotic treatment can stop it. Globally, the impact of COVID-19 had disrupted diagnosis and treatment of a host of other conditions, which will likely lead to a fresh surge in death rates globally.

The surge in deaths besides COVID-19 has been documented in a host of U.S. states besides Arizona.

The dramatic drop in childhood vaccinations is especially alarming, say doctors.

Vaccination rates had already fallen dangerously low even before the pandemic. Anti-vaccination campaigns, a state law that made it easy for parents to seek an exemption, a lack of enforcement by schools and a large number of uninsured Arizona residents all contributed to a steady decline in vaccination rates.

One study of vaccination rates by the age of 2 found roughly 74% to 69% of children covered by AHCCCS got the full, recommended set of vaccinations — depending on the vaccination in question.

Epidemiologists say that if you vaccinate 95% of the population, a virus can’t find enough hosts and new cases will essentially die out. They refer to this as “herd immunity.” However, once vaccination rates fall to 90% and below, a virus can much more easily get a foothold and spread.

Researchers are working at breakneck speed to come up with a vaccine to protect against COVID-19. Now that the virus has become so widespread, a vaccine’s considered the only way to stop it from becoming a chronic threat to global health. Even in the worst hit areas, only 10% or 20% of the population has been exposed to COVID-19, which means herd immunity remains distant.

However, the struggle to get people to take advantage of effective, safe, existing vaccines for things like measles demonstrates the struggle ahead.

Consider the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, which requires a single dose. Measles is far easier to transmit than COVID-19, with a higher fatality rate among children. The vaccine had almost eliminated measles in the U.S., but as vaccination levels dropped below 95%, the disease has made a comeback — including in Arizona. The CDC estimates that between 2000 and 2017, the measles vaccine prevented 21 million deaths — roughly 1.2 million annually.

However, only two-thirds of the children in Gila County were getting their measles shots on time. If the national trend applies here, that could decline to more like 40% — leaving the community primed for a dangerous measles outbreak.

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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