Measles, polio reemerge in U.S. as COVID-19 vaccine uproar supercharges anti-vaxx movement

| Oct 17 2022

A Texas bill that would scrap all school vaccine requirements — not just for COVID-19 — died in committee last year, but public health advocates and anti-mandate groups are expecting round two when lawmakers convene in Austin next year.

A form of polio was detected in unvaccinated people and wastewater in New York, and Minnesota recorded its first major outbreak of measles in five years. Meanwhile, public health experts are sounding the alarm about sliding childhood vaccination rates.

Parents have gone online to scrutinize the use of novel technology to make the coronavirus vaccines in record time, and some have voiced doubts and objections.

Scientists and public health officials are worried that the pandemic has turbocharged vaccine hesitancy, which festered long before COVID-19 arrived, and amplified fringe views about how a range of vaccines are made and whether they should be required in certain instances.

“COVID vaccines are only the beginning,” said Peter Hotez, an infectious diseases expert at the Baylor College of Medicine.

He said a fledging movement that falsely linked vaccines to autism about a decade ago has expanded and solidified into a “health freedom” movement.

An emerging catalyst for vaccine hesitancy is the rise of messenger RNA, which has been hailed as a breakthrough to combat COVID-19 and other diseases. Skeptics of the COVID-19 shots say mRNA technology — a snippet of genetic code that teaches the body to fight pathogens — is too new and hasn’t been properly vetted.

“The big thing is the mRNA technology itself, which was of course new for COVID. Since Pfizer and others are now developing new versions of vaccines for other diseases using this same technology, it has given a boost to attack all vaccines and in particular the looming prospect of all mRNA future vaccines. Activity in these online communities that we monitor has increased around this broader topic,” said Neil Johnson, a professor at George Washington University who tracks the “community interconnectivity” between anti-vaccine groups and mainstream communities online.

Public health advocates say a majority of Americans view vaccines as medical marvels that have eradicated or blunted harmful diseases.

Yet the COVID-19 fervor sparked a series of bills across the country to take a second look at school requirements.

Dorit Reiss, a professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, scrubbed databases and found 47 bills filed from January 2021 to June 2022 that would limit school vaccine mandates, and 13 of them extended beyond COVID-19.

Only three of the bills she found have passed. One in New Hampshire says religious exemptions to school vaccine requirements no longer have to be notarized. Iowa legislation clarifies that no attendee to day care or school must be vaccinated for COVID-19, and an Arizona bill declares that vaccination for COVID-19 and human papillomavirus are not required for school attendance.

A failed Wisconsin bill would have barred schools from denying admission to students based on vaccination status, sparking confusion because the language did not reverse vaccine requirements.

Many legislative efforts to roll back school vaccination mandates fail, but advocates worry that some will succeed.

“It is certainly true there is a lot of pontificating, a lot of noise signifying nothing. They do that to placate their base. They have no intention of passing those bills,” said Terri Burke, executive director of The Immunization Partnership, a Houston-based group that promotes awareness about vaccine-preventable diseases. “However, I’ve seen that a lot of times, and suddenly [the efforts] take flight.”

Republicans in Texas last year filed a state bill to scrap vaccine requirements for schools and other public entities. The bill never made it out of committee, though lawmakers may try again in the next session.

“Our experience in Texas is it’s ‘Third time’s the charm.’ It will come back,” Ms. Burke said. “We are preparing for exactly that eventually.”

Texans for Vaccine Choice, which is gearing up for the legislative session that begins in January, is asking candidates to promise to “vigorously work to prohibit all vaccine mandates in Texas.”

“TFVC is working hard now to prepare for the session to ensure that all attempts to override personal vaccine decisions are stopped and that current exemption protections are preserved and advanced,” Rebecca Hardy, president of the Texans for Vaccine Choice board, told The Washington Times.

The group, which opposes vaccine mandates of any kind, said the debate around COVID-19 has expanded its influence.

“The push for universal COVID vaccination is backfiring. Our organization has seen growth in the past year as citizens wake up to the perverse incentives of forced vaccinations,” Ms. Hardy said.

Public health officials are vexed that COVID-19 vaccine fervor is bleeding into other vaccines because there seemed to be broad agreement about the need to box out measles, mumps and other common diseases from schools. Every state has mandated vaccines for school attendance, and many of these rules have been around for decades.

“There was no question that there were vaccine deniers before COVID,” Ms. Burke said. “But they were sort of there. They weren’t a huge, loud crowd. And I still don’t think they’re a majority, but they’ve gotten an awful lot louder and their numbers have grown. That is the alarm for us.”

Researchers have noticed a downturn in routine vaccinations, possibly a result of pandemic shocks that may signal a long-term trend.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a drop in routine state-mandated vaccines for diseases such as measles and whooping cough during the 2020-2021 school year. That means 35,000 more schoolchildren without documentation of vaccination.

Michigan researchers said the share of toddlers receiving a vaccine series against diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, meningitis, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, chickenpox, and pneumonia dropped from 74% in the fourth quarter of 2019 to 67.5% in the first quarter of 2022.

“We’ve actually seen numbers that are much lower than we’ve seen in a very long time, years and years, even pre- and post-COVID,” Dr. Joseph Fakhoury, a pediatrician and chairman of the Michigan Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told the Second Wave Michigan publication.

Since June, Minnesota has recorded 17 cases of measles, all of them in children ages 2 to 13 who were unvaccinated. A majority of cases are tied to travel where measles is known to circulate, but a few are thought to be the result of community spread.

“Anyone who works in infectious disease knows that is a huge deal,” said Patsy Stinchfield, a retired nurse practitioner in Minnesota and president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. “It’s the first time in five years we’ve seen measles cases in double digits, so that’s a sign things are going in the wrong direction.”