Michigan’s childhood vaccination rates have hit their lowest point since 2011

Rates declined since the COVID pandemic, alarmed health officials urge parents to act

By: - August 18, 2023 4:10 am

John Partipilo/Tennessee Lookout

Michigan’s childhood vaccination rates have fallen to their lowest point since 2011, alarming health officials throughout the state who are urging families to ensure their children are protected against highly contagious diseases like measles, mumps and whooping cough. 

Vaccination rates among Michigan children began to drop during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Now, health officials said fewer trips to family physicians during the pandemic and misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines have led to a decrease in immunization rates that leaves communities across the state vulnerable to diseases that can be fatal or cause life-long health problems.

“In 2023, only 66.5% of children between the ages of 19 and 36 months had completed the recommended doses of primary vaccines – and that’s compared to over 75% in 2017,” Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, chief medical executive for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), said during a Thursday press conference with health officials and advocates from across the state.

State health officials recommend children get vaccinated against a wide variety of diseases, including polio, measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis B, chicken pox, and whooping cough, among others. Children are required to receive a variety of vaccines in order to attend school, though parents are able to request waivers that permit their child to opt out of receiving vaccines. Vaccines against polio, the measles and hepatitis B, for example, are required to attend school, but the COVID-19 vaccine is not. The COVID-19 vaccine, however, is strongly recommended.

At an Aug. 17, 2023 virtual press conference, health officials from across Michigan urged parents to get their children vaccinated before school begins. | Screenshot

The rate of Michigan children ages 19 to 36 months who have received their recommended vaccinations has decreased to less than 70% in 52 of the state’s 83 counties – or more than half of Michigan, according to the June 2023 data from the Michigan Care Improvement Registry. Seventy percent is typically the threshold needed to be reached to provide herd immunity against a disease.

“That means these schools and communities with low vaccination rates are at increased risk of outbreaks of diseases such as measles, mumps, rubella, and chickenpox, just to name a few,” Bagdasarian, an infectious disease specialist, said during Thursday’s virtual press conference. 

According to state data, the 10 counties with the lowest vaccination rates for children ages 19 to 36 months are: Oscoda County (36.5%), Keweenaw County (50%), the city of Detroit (51.2%), Clare County (52.9%), Houghton County (53.9%), Lake County (55.1%), Gladwin County (56.7%), St. Joseph County (58.9%), Sanilac County (59.9%), and Lapeer County (60.5%).

The Michigan counties with the highest vaccination rates are: Ontonagon County (81.6%), Midland County (77.5%), Kent County (77%), Bay County (76.9%), Leelanau County (76.8%), Allegan County (76.4%) Huron County (76.3%), Dickinson County (75.6%), Charlevoix County (75.5%), and Clinton County (75.4%).

Health officials attributed a variety of factors to this drop in vaccinations, including families being less likely to interact with their family doctor during the pandemic and a “spill-over” effect from misinformation around the COVID-19 vaccine. 

“It is possible that with all of the negative rhetoric and all of the politicization about COVID-19 vaccines that some of that spilled over onto our routine childhood immunizations,” Bagdasarian said. 

Throughout the pandemic, right-wing commentators and politicians across the country, including in Michigan, have spread misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccines, leaving Republicans to both be more likely to be skeptical of the vaccines and to die from COVID. According to a May survey from the Pew Research Center, Democrats are twice as likely as Republicans to say the benefits of the COVID-19 vaccines outweigh the risks – 84% of Democrats compared to 40% of Republicans. 

I know first-hand how devastating a vaccine-preventable disease can be; in 2012, I lost my infant daughter, Francesca Marie, to whooping cough.

– Veronica Valentine McNally, president of the Franny Strong Foundation and the founder of the I Vaccinate Campaign

To combat misinformation, Bagdasarian said it’s essential that parents and family members who are skeptical of vaccines, COVID-19 or others, can discuss their concerns with a trusted health official, whether that’s their family pediatrician or someone at their child’s school. 

“There’s power in having those one-on-one conversations,” Bagdasarian said.

Colleen Hall-Young, a nurse practitioner who works at a school-based health center in Pontiac Middle School, also emphasized this point. 

Hall-Young said while “parents do have some hesitancy regarding vaccines for COVID and HPV,” school health officials work with them to address their concerns. HPV refers to human papillomavirus, which can cause a range of cancers, including cervical, penile, head and neck cancers.

School health officials also work to provide information about vaccines, diseases and other health matters to students, Hall-Young said.

“I believe by educating students, it empowers them to be their own self advocate when it comes to their future health,” she said.

Those participating in Thursday’s press conference noted that recent research has suggested hesitancy around a number of vaccines has not increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the May survey from the Pew Research Center, nine out of 10 adults in the United States said the benefits of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccines outweigh the risks – a number that has not changed since before the pandemic.

Getty Images

“Most children do receive their childhood vaccines on time,” said Veronica Valentine McNally, president of the Franny Strong Foundation, a childhood vaccine advocacy group in West Bloomfield, Mich., and the founder of the I Vaccinate Campaign.

Attitudes around the COVID-19 vaccine, however, are different. The Pew survey found six out of 10 adults said the benefits of the COVID-19 vaccines outweighed its risks – despite the fact that health officials and extensive research around the COVID-19 vaccines have documented its safety and efficacy.

In Michigan, 6.8% of children ages five and under have completed their COVID-19 vaccines, while 28.6% of those ages 5 to 11 have done the same, according to DHHS. That rate increases among older children, with 46.9% of children ages 12 to 15 completing their COVID-19 vaccinations and 52.6% of Michiganders ages 16 to 19.

Whatever the reason behind the decrease, health officials and advocates said the lack of vaccinations can translate to devastating health consequences. McNally, for example, pointed to a 2022 measles outbreak in Ohio that resulted in 36 children being hospitalized. Ninety-four percent of those children were unvaccinated, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I know firsthand how devastating a vaccine-preventable disease can be; in 2012, I lost my infant daughter, Francesca Marie, to whooping cough,” McNally said.

While reaching a 70% vaccination rate is considered herd immunity, anything less than 90% of children in a school being vaccinated can create an environment where diseases can quickly spread, health officials noted. That leaves officials especially concerned as school resumes this month, and they encouraged parents to access school-specific vaccination data here.

“These diseases are real, and they circulate in our communities,” McNally said. “Vaccines work, and they are safe and effective.”

This is the message health officials said they are working hard to spread to all corners of the state: Vaccines save lives.

“Vaccines are one of the most important items on every family’s back-to-school checklist,” said Ruthanne Sudderth, senior vice president and chief strategy officer for the Michigan Health and Hospital Association (MHA).

“I’m a mom … and I get my kids vaccinated to protect them and protect others,” Sudderth continued.

It is possible that with all of the negative rhetoric and all of the politicization about COVID-19 vaccines that some of that spilled over onto our routine childhood immunizations.

– Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, chief medical executive for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services

Dr. Jonnie Hamilton of Ascension, a health care network that runs 24 school-based community health centers in Michigan, said her organization has achieved vaccination rates of at least 90% in their schools. For vaccines that have been especially riddled by misinformation, such as the HPV vaccine, Hamilton said they have been successful in alleviating parents’ concerns by talking to them and their students about the HPV vaccine and the cancers it prevents.

“It is really important for parents to be aware that prevention is the greatest asset to them as far as preventable diseases,” Hamilton said.

As school resumes, health officials hope to see the vaccination rates rise. After all, they asked, what parent would want their child – or anyone else’s child – to be hospitalized or die from an entirely preventable disease?

“I urge parents to put immunizations at the top of their back-to-school lists,” McNally said.


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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is a former assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats included economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country.