MADISON (WKOW) -- As kids prepare to head back to school, doctors are urging parents to make sure their children are caught up with routine vaccinations.
Many schools won't require masks this fall, and Dr. James Conway, the medical director of UW Health's immunization program, said that will make it easier for diseases to spread.
"Schools are absolutely the perfect breeding ground and the perfect transmission site for these illnesses to go from kid to kid," he said.
Conway said doctors believe the lack of masks will exacerbate sickness in kids who have fallen behind the normal vaccine schedule during the pandemic.
"We're really worried about whooping cough and mumps and chickenpox and things like that, mostly because so many kids have just started to get behind on these vaccines," he said.
Data from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services shows a big drop in the number of routine vaccinations health care providers are administering to children aged 5- to 18-years-old this year compared to the five years before the pandemic.
On average, they administered 58,266 routine vaccines every July from 2015 to 2019. In July 2022, they administered 36,550.
Conway said that drop-off affects everyone.
"We're basically losing herd immunity in a lot of regions of the world," he said. "This is not just a U.S. phenomenon or a European phenomenon. This is a global phenomenon."
He said fewer children receiving the measles vaccine has led to outbreaks in at least five countries, and he said that could spread further because of how contagious the disease is.
However, Conway said there are things parents can do to keep their kids healthy and get them back on track for routine vaccinations -- but cautioned building full protection will take time.
"You can't just magically go in one day and get all caught up," he said. "It still takes a while because each of these is a series of vaccines, a series of shots."
Conway said parents should also make sure they are caught up with their vaccines because that can provide extra protection for kids who are only partway through a vaccine series.
"While kids, especially young kids, are in the process of getting their entire series of vaccines, it's really helpful if the other people that are around them regularly are also vaccinated so they're not going to risk bringing one of those diseases into the house," he said. "It's actually an all-family, all hands on deck thing at this point."
He said he also recommends parents ask their health care provider not only about vaccines that are required for school but other shots that are available that could be beneficial for their children.
"Because of the political climate over the last 5, 10 years, it's been a lot harder for schools to add in other really valuable vaccines," Conway said. "There's quite a few vaccines that are actually quite valuable and in the old days probably would have been added as required vaccines."
He said that includes the meningococcal B vaccine and the HPV vaccine for teenagers.