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DLSPH-​Led Experts Offer Tactics to Catch Up on Routine Immunizations

September 27/2021

By Heidi Singer

A DLSPH-led group of experts is calling on governments, physicians, schools and other health providers to step up immunizations for serious diseases like measles and polio to prevent new epidemics from cropping up.

The vaccine experts, led by members of DLSPH’s Centre for Vaccine Preventable Diseases (CVPD), issued a report, “Maintaining Immunizations for School-Aged Children,” to provide specific recommendations for increasing immunization uptake.

Dr. Kate Allan

“Ensuring that children receive missed routine immunizations is critical to preventing drops in vaccine coverage and avoiding disease outbreaks in Ontario,” says Dr. Kate Allan, a postdoctoral fellow with CVDP and co-author of the report. “Prior to the pandemic, we were already falling short of our national coverage goals of 95 percent. These coverage gaps will likely persist or worsen, and the numbers don’t have to fall far before we see outbreaks of previously well-controlled, serious diseases.”

Nobody knows the extent to which routine immunizations have dropped off, but in many areas, school vaccine clinics have stopped entirely due to the pandemic, and both community and hospital-based pediatricians say they are giving far fewer immunizations. The disappearance of school-based clinics worries the authors from an equity perspective, since many of the most vulnerable families depend on schools for their immunizations.

Dr. Pierre-Philippe Piche-Renaud

“I am very concerned that we could see an increase in diseases such as measles and meningitis, which can have devastating consequences,” says report co-author Dr. Pierre-Philippe Piche-Renaud, an Infectious Diseases Fellow at U of T’s Faculty of Medicine and The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids). “It is important we do everything we can to avoid a resurgence of these diseases, especially while the COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing.”

The group is calling on public health officials to invest in a centralized electronic immunization registry to track immunizations in school-aged children. And playing catch-up means offering varied and flexible choices: providing vaccinations in schools, primary care offices, pharmacies and establishing mass immunization clinics in communities; extending pharmacy and primary care hours and providing culturally competent communication and care.

Responses to the pandemic show that the health system can move quickly, and newly strengthened partnerships between schools, public health agencies, hospitals and providers can help with the catch-up efforts, the authors say.

And the success of COVID-19 vaccines could provide a silver lining: “With COVID-19, we have all been able to witness in real time the threat of a disease without a vaccine and the benefits of vaccination when it became available,” says Allan. “I think many parents might view vaccinations more positively given this experience.”

The report was produced by Allan and Piche-Renaud, along with researchers from CVPD and McMaster University’s DeGroot School of Medicine.