By Thomas G. McGinn, MD, MPH
System Executive Vice Presidency, CommonSpirit Health
Picture this. A woman in her 50s has borderline high blood pressure and occasional digestive issues but she’s been feeling ok. She is not particularly worried. Over the past two years, since the COVID-19 pandemic began, she’s put off several check ups with her doctor and hasn’t scheduled her recommended annual mammogram appointment or colonoscopy. Her blood pressure has steadily increased and when she finally makes these appointments, her physicians diagnose heart disease and early stage colon cancer.
Does this sound familiar? Perhaps you know someone just like this. Maybe it’s even you.
While COVID-19 rates may be flattening in some areas, physicians and APPs across America are seeing another crisis emerge. Avoided routine vaccinations as well as missed cancer screenings and annual check-ups, are resulting in worse overall health and more patients with unusual or advanced disease; and long forgotten or previously thought eradicated diseases are re-emerging.
Case in point: the virus that causes polio, which was eradicated in the Americas in the 1990s, was just recently detected in New York City’s wastewater. And with one case, there are likely hundreds more undetected. Herd immunity from vaccination had previously protected the U.S. from experiencing an polio outbreak like we saw in the 1940s and 1950s.
Today, polio vaccination rates vary from state to state and even from neighborhood to neighborhood. In some communities in New York City, for example, more than 40% of children under age five are not vaccinated against polio.
Polio is something I never thought I’d have to warn patients about again during my career as a physician. We do not wish for a new polio outbreak to serve as yet another example of what happens when a group of people are unvaccinated.
Immunization is our only protection from the re-emergence of diseases that we once declared victory over, and regular health screenings can find serious diseases at an early and treatable stage. It’s time to get back on track.
It’s understandable. Life gets in the way and so certainly did COVID-19. But that nagging heartburn or recurring cough just might be something more serious. And flu season is just around the corner. It’s time to prioritize preventive care. I implore all of you to take action. Childhood vaccinations, annual influenza vaccination, cancer screenings, and annual wellness check-ups play a critical role in disease avoidance and early detection and treatment. It’s not only safe to return to the doctor’s office; it could be harmful to stay away any longer.