Opinion: As with the coronavirus pandemic, the best way to protect children entering school — and adults — is vaccines

AP File Photo/Paul Vernon / A registered nurse and immunization outreach coordinator with the Knox County Health Department administers a vaccination to a child at the facility in Mount Vernon, Ohio, on May 17, 2019.
AP File Photo/Paul Vernon / A registered nurse and immunization outreach coordinator with the Knox County Health Department administers a vaccination to a child at the facility in Mount Vernon, Ohio, on May 17, 2019.

We seem to be slow learners about vaccines.

The world's first vaccine — against smallpox — was demonstrated by Dr. Edward Jenner in England in 1796, but in 1931 the United States in general and Tennessee specifically were lagging behind.

Dr. J.C. Eldridge, the county's then-health director, in a Chattanooga Times article from the day, noted that the U.S. had around 50,000 smallpox cases a year, where Europe had not a single case in 1927. Further, he said, Mexico had surpassed the U.S. in vaccination activity, and the much less developed countries of China, Russia and India were making great strides.

"Only the United States of the great nations tolerates this scourge ...," he said. "The fruit of this unwillingness to accept vaccination is the tremendous prevalence of the disease as shown. ... Vaccination will control it ... and that's about the whole story."

Tennessee, in 1931, had averaged 1,200 cases of smallpox a year for the past 10 years, and only 11 other states had more cases than the Volunteer State. A smallpox epidemic in Soddy the previous winter had prompted renewed efforts toward vaccination in Hamilton County.

Meanwhile, a diptheria vaccine was developed in the early 1920s but was not widely used until the 1930s. Yet, in 1944, the Chattanooga News-Free Press chronicled the death of an unvaccinated local child.

"A monthlong struggle by a 2-year-old Sale Creek tot against dread diptheria and paralysis was lost at 6 o'clock this morning in Children's Hospital, where the plucky youngster died in the hospital's iron lung," the article read.

"The child ... battled the last 36 hours of his life in an artificial respiration cabinet, an iron lung, donated to the hospital during the infantile paralysis epidemic here ... ."

The world was considered eradicated from smallpox in 1980. By 2009, the U.S., which reached a peak of more than 200,000 diptheria cases in the U.S. in 1921, had had no cases for five years.

We say all this because of the recent report that of Tennessee's 13 public health regions, the Chattanooga/Hamilton Region had the lowest percentage of fully immunized students (90.4%) during the 2022-2023 school year. In addition, Hamilton County's kindergarten vaccination rate (89.7%) had improved slightly but still was one of five counties in the state with rates below 90%.

Across the state, kindergarten vaccination rates reached a record low of 93.3% since state agencies began tracking and reporting immunization compliance.

In Hamilton County, the highest rate of kindergarten vaccinations were at Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences and North Hamilton County Elementary. The lowest came at Hamilton County Virtual School, Woodmore Elementary, Hardy Elementary and East Lake Elementary.

How much the lower vaccination rates are a result of the coronavirus unpleasantness is hard to gauge.

Certainly, the politicization of the COVID-19 vaccine had effects on who took the initial immunizations and who didn't. When the vaccine was developed under a Republican president (Donald Trump), Democrats stated they were wary of it. Then when a Democratic president (Joe Biden) pushed it, Republicans said they were wary of it. None of that ever made sense to us.

But if the COVID vaccination rates spilled over to childhood vaccination rates — and COVID vaccines are not required for school attendance — counties with heavy Trump voters should have lower vaccination rates and school districts with heavy Biden voters should have higher rates. However, that's not always true as a glance at the Hamilton County school rates exhibit.

North Hamilton County was a solid Trump area, but North Hamilton County Elementary has one of the highest vaccination rates. North Brainerd and East Chattanooga, where Woodmore and Hardy lie, were strong for Biden, but their schools have among the lowest rates.

Socio-economic levels are not a good barometer, either. Shelby County, with a poverty level of 19%, had high vaccination rates, while Moore County, with a poverty rate of 9.7% and a much higher median income than Shelby County, had low vaccination rates.

The bottom line is that nothing short of legitimate health or religious concerns should keep parents from having their children vaccinated.

Children entering kindergarten must have the diptheria-tetanus-pertussis, hepatitis B, poliomyelitis, measles-mumps-rubella, varcicella (chicken pox) and hepatitis A vaccines, while students entering seventh grade must have the appropriate boosters or doses of the same vaccines.

Medicine has come a long way since the aforementioned sad episodes of smallpox and diptheria, but outbreaks of the diseases for which vaccines are available are absolutely possible if vaccination rates dip below certain levels.

Why wouldn't parents want to protect their children from those maladies, and in turn themselves and their relatives? It's the same reasoning we used during the coronavirus pandemic: Forewarned (vaccinated) is always forearmed (protected as much as possible).