SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — Currently, there are five vaccines that kids in California must get to attend school, and a lot of parents are wondering if the eventual COVID-19 vaccine will be added to that list.
A website run by the California Department of Public Health seems to suggest that a change to the state’s immunization requirements may be imminent. In a message titled “COVID-19 Update,” state officials say immunization requirements “remain in place for now. Any updates will be posted here.”
But history and medical science suggest it will take time before states make a COVID vaccine mandatory for children, according to Dr. Rahul Gupta, the chief medical and health officer at March of Dimes.
March of Dimes is the non-profit organization that funded the search for a polio vaccine in the 1950s.
“We’re seeing a repeat of history in so many ways,” Dr. Gupta said.
Fear of the deadly polio virus prompted quarantines, social distancing and a run on breathing machines. In those days, doctors used iron lungs.
With funding from March of Dimes, Dr. Jonas Salk launched a massive clinical trial on 1.8 million kids using his experimental vaccine in 1954. Almost exactly a year later, in April 1955, he announced the vaccine was safe and effective.
Within days, five million kids got the first dose of Salk’s vaccine. But the State of California did not mandate the polio vaccine for children entering schools for six more years -- in 1961.
The most recent vaccine added to California’s required immunization list was for chickenpox in 2000. That was five years after that vaccine became available in the U.S.
When a COVID-19 vaccine is ready in the U.S., children will not be among the first inoculated, Dr. Gupta said. Unlike polio, the novel coronavirus tends to spare children from the most severe symptoms.
“The supply will require us to make sure that we prioritize the highest risk population, including healthcare workers,” he said.
It’s also unclear how children would respond to the COVID-19 vaccine. Current vaccine candidates against the coronavirus are being tested on adults not children, according to CDPH, and children mount different immune responses than adults.
Experimental vaccines can also have difficulties in the production process. In the infamous Cutter Incident, one of the six labs licensed to produce the polio vaccine accidentally let live virus slip into the shots, leading to more than 250 cases of polio, including instances of paralysis and deaths.
The incident prompted sweeping safety changes in the U.S.
Dr. Gupta said the Cutter Incident shows vaccines need to be rolled out carefully.
“We have to understand that that’s a process and we learn as we go along,” he said. “There could be some adverse events that happen from any drug, much less a vaccine that you take. Foods give you allergies. It’s not an unknown side effect.”
State officials could a new vaccine to California’s mandatory list by passing a bill or through a regulation issued by CDPH.
The process can often take years, but CDPH said in an emergency the process could be “greatly accelerated.”