Lewis: COVID gave a huge boost to the antivax movement. But vaccination rates for many childhood diseases were starting to erode long before that.
Fischman: That’s right—it started with people like Jenny McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. spreading false information about the effects of vaccines and autism, and got amplified from there. It’s really become an organized movement now.
Lewis: Absolutely. So it may not surprise you that during the pandemic, the number of kids getting routine vaccinations fell even more, leaving them more vulnerable to these diseases.
Fischman: That’s definitely not good. The last thing we need is another measles or whooping cough outbreak.
Lewis: Exactly. And some of these diseases can cause serious disability or even death—remember polio?
Fischman: My parents remember it vividly. Kids on crutches, horror stories of iron lungs, people fearing summer because that’s when cases peaked. And Jonas Salk became a huge hero because of his polio vaccine in the 1950s.
Lewis: Right! It was a scary time. Thanks to vaccines, polio was nearly eradicated worldwide, except for Afghanistan and Pakistan. In August 2022, there was a case of polio in Rockland County, New York—the first U.S. polio case since 2013. The virus was also found circulating in wastewater.
Vaccination rates for polio in the Americas have dropped to about 80 percent—much lower than the 95 percent threshold public health officials say is needed.
Fischman: And it’s not just polio, right?
Lewis: Right—it’s also diseases like measles, mumps and rubella, or tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just came out with a report saying that between 2019 and 2022, vaccination rates for many childhood diseases dropped from 95 percent to around 93 percent nationwide. Idaho had the lowest vaccination rate, at just over 81 percent.
Fischman: A change from 95 to 93 percent doesn’t sound like a huge drop. But for diseases like measles, which are extremely contagious, its a big deal. Anything less than 95 percent could lead to an outbreak.