Thomas-Hemak

Thomas-Hemak

COVID-19 has tragically impacted all aspects of life’s routines, especially those of our children. Library story times are being hosted by Facebook Live, and school lessons are being held via Zoom and Google Classroom. Graduations, proms and sports have all been canceled, and birthdays are now celebrated with drive-by processions.

But there’s an additional, unintended consequence of the Novel Coronavirus-19 that may be less visible and more dangerous to children than the pandemic itself: the sharp decline in the usually scheduled childhood and teenage vaccinations.

Vaccines are the best way that you can protect your child from a number of diseases as serious as COVID-19, including pneumonia, diphtheria, measles, mumps, chickenpox, meningococcal disease, whooping cough, polio and cancers caused by Hepatitis B or HPV. Skipping or delaying these important immunizations, especially in early childhood, can create severe waves of preventable disease outbreaks in the months and years ahead. The risk will be real when families finally emerge from quarantine with infants, toddlers and children who have not been inoculated against these life-threatening illnesses. This scenario, especially if combined with another surge of COVID-19, could be devastating for families, communities and already stressed healthcare systems.

I feel morally compelled to educate our community about the public health significance of timely childhood and adolescent vaccinations. My father has been permanently disabled from a polio epidemic in his childhood, the likes of which no longer recur since wide-scale adoption of polio immunization. During my residency training in Boston over 20 years ago, I cared for countless children who unfortunately died from or were disabled by pneumonia or meningitis secondary to causes now preventable with vaccinations. Measles, in particular, which historically was a predominant cause of intellectual disability, poses a severe threat. The CDC report earlier this month that roughly 250,000 fewer doses of MMR vaccines were annually administered compared to this time last year is very frightening. Further disturbing evidence from the CDC has shown that overall routine childhood vaccinations have fallen by 2.5 million doses between March 13 and April 19 of this year compared to last.

For 20 years, it has been my humble honor to care for patients and families in the same valley where I was born and raised. As a doctor on the frontlines during this time of the global COVID-19 pandemic and as a steward of The Wright Center for Community Health’s nine clinical locations across NEPA, I’ve witnessed firsthand the anxiety of our patients and our community. As the grateful parent of three healthy children, I also empathize with the instinct to protect our children by keeping them close, guarded and quarantined.

In this first of what will become a twice-monthly column by The Wright Center for Community Health in The Valley Advantage, I’d like to reassure all parents that there are safe and effective options available to ensure your children don’t miss their critical medical milestones of receiving well checks and vaccinations. While I’ve personally experienced the benefits and rewards of telehealth visits that allow me to connect with patients electronically from the comfort of their own homes, it’s very important for the community to know that our clinics are prepared and remain safe havens, where you can still bring your families for comprehensive primary and pediatric health services based on CDC and Pennsylvania Department of Health best practices.

Although we understand current circumstances make visiting your doctor or child’s pediatrician a challenge, please remember vaccines are the best way you can protect your child from serious preventable diseases that can cause disability and death.

Linda Thomas-Hemak, M.D., a primary care physician triple board-certified in pediatrics, internal medicine and addiction medicine, leads The Wright Center for Community Health as CEO and serves as president of The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education. She lives with her family and practices primary care in Jermyn. Send your medical questions to news@thewrightcenter.org.

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