Colorado’s struggle to improve school vaccination rates shows the challenges ahead for a coronavirus vaccine |

Colorado’s struggle to improve school vaccination rates shows the challenges ahead for a coronavirus vaccine

Before the pandemic hit, the state finally pushed its kindergarten vaccination rate above 90%, but access to health care and pockets of resistance are still issues

John Ingold / Colorado Sun
Parents and children gathered in front of Colorado’s state capitol on March 9, 2020 to pay tribute to “vaccine-injured children.” The vigil was organized by the Colorado Health Choice Alliance –– an anti vaccination advocacy group. The gathering was also in opposition of Senate Bill 163, which would require parents who choose not to vaccinate their children to get a medical provider to sign off on it.
Moe Clark / Colorado Sun

When Dr. Jessica Cataldi, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and a practicing pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Colorado, was doing infectious disease work in Africa years ago, she noticed a difference in how many parents there thought about vaccines.

Resistance to vaccination exists across the world for a variety of reasons — from spiritual belief to experiences with prior botched vaccination campaigns. But Cataldi said parents were generally more willing to vaccinate their kids when the diseases were active threats in their communities, meaning their children might get sick without a vaccination.

Back home in the United States, vaccines have largely eradicated infectious diseases of the past — like measles and polio — and that, too, has shaped how parents view vaccines, Cataldi said.

“It’s a difference thinking about the risks and benefits,” she said. “People who see kids getting sick more often, they understand the risk from those diseases. When the diseases are less common, there is a shift to thinking more about the risk of the vaccine.”

That insight helps explain Colorado’s arduous struggle to get childhood vaccination rates above 90% statewide, a goal achieved this year just before the coronavirus pandemic hit and likely knocked them back down again. But it also provides a hint at one of the biggest unknowns surrounding vaccines for COVID-19 that are fast heading toward market: Once they’re approved, how many people will actually want to use them?

Because it is possible that the coronavirus vaccines won’t be 100% effective for everyone, their value may lie more in their ability to bring an entire population to the level of herd immunity — where not everybody is immune but just enough are to prevent the virus from spreading. But reaching herd immunity through a partially effective vaccine requires lots of people to get vaccinated. And Colorado’s struggle with childhood vaccination rates shows why that could be difficult.

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