By Rosalyn Singleton, MD MPH
Parents agree that feeding and sleep schedules are important to help keep their children healthy. The same goes for childhood immunizations. Vaccinating children on time is the best way to protect them against 14 serious and potentially deadly diseases before their second birthday.
Vaccines have transformed medicine. Before vaccines, polio would paralyze 10,000 children each year, and rubella (German measles) would cause birth defects and mental disability in 20,000 newborns. Measles would infect 4 million people per year, and diphtheria would be one of the most common causes of death in school-aged children. Haemophilus influenzae (Hib) meningitis would affect 15,000, leaving one-third with brain damage or deafness. Whooping cough would kill thousands of infants.
Before vaccines, there was a lot of fear in communities about outbreaks of diseases like polio, measles or Spanish Flu. Many parents kept their children away from community pools in the summer for fear of polio. The last U.S. polio case was in 1979. Now that routine vaccination has led to disappearance of some of these diseases, some parents question the necessity of vaccines.
Vaccines have had a tremendous impact on health of Alaskans. Before vaccines, there were up to 80 cases of Hib meningitis and sepsis every year – now cases are rare. Alaska had massive outbreaks of Hepatitis A (infectious hepatitis) – now the only hepatitis A cases are brought in by travelers. Measles outbreaks contributed to high infant death rates in parts of the state – after vaccine, there were no measles cases between 2000 and 2014. Before vaccines, Alaska Native children had one of the highest rates of meningitis (brain infection) caused by the Hib bacteria – now Hib infections are rare.
Public health experts and physicians base their vaccine recommendations on many factors. They study information about diseases and vaccines very carefully to decide which vaccines kids should get and when they should get them for best protection.
People often ask pediatricians about getting their shots late or spreading them out for their children, but there is no scientific evidence that really supports doing that. Pediatricians agree that getting shots late puts children at risk for getting the disease the shot protects against. It hasn’t been shown to be beneficial for the kids to get the shots spread out.
Although the number of vaccines a child needs in the first two years may seem like a lot, the number of proteins in today’s vaccines are fewer than in the past. A healthy baby’s immune system can handle getting all vaccines when they are recommended. Pediatricians caution against parents delaying vaccination. Most of the time, doing the shots in multiple clinic visits is actually more stressful than doing them all at once.
When parents choose not to vaccinate or to follow a delayed schedule, children are left unprotected against diseases that still circulate in this country, like measles and whooping cough. Measles was eliminated in the United States in 2000; however, pockets of unvaccinated people still lead to measles outbreaks. In 2014, the U.S. experienced the largest number of cases since measles was eliminated. Alaska was free of measles from 2000 to 2014, but in 2015 there was a case of measles in a traveler to Alaska. Staying on track with the immunization schedule ensures that children have the best protection against diseases like these.
Parents can work with their child’s healthcare provider to keep their children protected against these harmful diseases. Immunization is a shared responsibility. Families, healthcare professionals, public health officials and the media can all work together to help protect the entire community.
Naturally, we all want to protect our children. We don’t want them to have the illnesses that they can be exposed to without vaccines. While it’s true that vaccines are not without risk, most vaccine side effects are mild, and the risk of disease far outweighs the risk of vaccine.
If you have questions about the childhood immunization schedule, talk with your child’s healthcare provider or nurse. For more information about vaccines, go to www.cdc.gov/vaccines/parents or http://www.chop.edu/centers-programs/vaccine-education-center.
Rosalyn Singleton, MD MPH, is a pediatrician and research physician with the Alaska Native Health Tribal Consortium.