NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Fewer Tennessee kindergarteners are getting their routine vaccines, according to the state health department, raising concerns as it happened for a second year.

“Although the overall immunization coverage is good, an increasingly under-vaccinated kindergarten community is at risk for highly infectious and sometimes fatal outbreaks of vaccine preventable diseases,” stated an executive summary signed by State Epidemiologist Dr. John Dunn and Vaccine-Preventable Diseases and Immunization Program Medical Director Caitlin Newhouse.

The state health department released its Kindergarten Immunization Compliance Assessment Report this month for the 2022-2023 school year. It showed that 93.5% (69,719) of public school students were fully immunized and 4,876 were not fully immunized, marking a second straight year of decline.

“The big fear and big concern that we have in the medical community and in pediatrics is that if the percentage continues to decline we’re going to put our children at risk for contagious outbreaks of contagious viruses that can potentially cause diseases in our communities and cause diseases in our children,” said Dr. Joseph Gigante, professor of pediatrics at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt.

He said a recent case showing the importance of vaccines from Columbus, Ohio where there were a large number of kindergarten students were not vaccinated against measles.

“Just this last year 85 kids got measles because of under immunization,” said Dr. Gigante. “I think the scary part of that is almost half those kids actually ended up being hospitalized because of complications from measles. And measles is such an easily preventable disease. It is highly contagious but easily prevented by children getting fully vaccinated against the measles with the MMR vaccine.”

Tennessee leaders set a goal to have at least 95% of children fully vaccinated but fewer counties are meeting that mark. There were 72 in the 2019-2020 school year and the number fell the last two years. Now just 26 Tennessee counties are meeting the threshold.

Dr. Gigante explained that while it would be great to vaccine 100% of children, one of the reasons that’s not feasible is because some children are immunocompromised.

“If a child has been treated with cancer, they’re not eligible to get the MMR vaccine,” Dr. Gigante said. “So the reason to have that 95% threshold is that, and this is I think a term that we heard a lot during COVID is that issue of herd immunity, where if a large enough percentage of the children around that child who has been treated for cancer, have been vaccinated against MMR and getting vaccinated against measles, the likelihood of measles kind of really circulating around the community is markedly decreased.”

Public school students who were not fully immunized for the 2022-23 school year fell into the following categories:

  • Religious Exemption: 2,154 ( 0.7%)
  • Temporary Certificate: 1,542 ( 0.1%)
  • Medical Exemption: 107 (↔)
  • Incomplete/Missing Record: 1,008 (↓ 0.4%)

The report stated that in Davidson County, 92.5% of 8,108 students were fully immunized.

The health department’s report stated that national estimates have shown a decline in overall vaccination rates since the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think vaccine hesitancy and vaccine resistance has unfortunately only increased since the pandemic began,” said Dr. Gigante. “I think there’s been a lot of misinformation about the COVID vaccine. And I think that misinformation about the COVID vaccine has kind of fueled the fire, if you will, with regard to folks who maybe had questions or concerns about vaccines.”

Health department officials said medical providers who deliver health care to children are encouraged to review immunization records and provide catch-up vaccinations at every opportunity. According to Dr. Gigante, the evidence for the safety of vaccines is overwhelming.

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“Childhood vaccines, especially, have been tested so extensively and continue to be tested,” he said. “I think that’s oftentimes a misconception where folks feel like we don’t continue to look at the vaccines. We look at them continuously. But with all that information, they really are safe, they’re effective, they keep children healthy, and in some instances may actually save their life.”