It’s National Immunization Awareness Month! This week’s focus is on giving children “a healthy start” through immunization. Right from birth, children are at risk of vaccine-preventable diseases that can result in severe consequences. Thankfully, vaccines are available to help protect babies when they are most vulnerable and offer protection throughout childhood and into adulthood. Now, we have more protection than ever for young children, with immunizations against 14 serious diseases! These vaccines work best when given according to the recommended schedules for ages 0-6 years and 7-18 years. Our guest blogger, Dr. Lynne Tetreault, is here to share her perspective as a Maine pediatrician on this important topic.
By Lynne Tetreault, MD
Happy almost back to school time! Like many parents this time of year, you may be trying to squeeze in the last few days of summer while making sure that your kids have what they need for school. You may also be preparing to return to a normal daily routine. Helping children adjust to the school schedule can prepare them for a successful year. But the school schedule isn’t the only one to think about – the immunization schedule is another important tool to help children thrive. Even if you have children who are too young for school, now is a great time to check their immunization record to be sure they up-to-date on their vaccines and that they get their next vaccines on time.
The Power of Vaccines
Childhood vaccines are important because they help prevent 14 serious and life-threatening diseases by the age of 2. I’ve heard people say that vaccine-preventable diseases are rare and that they aren’t very serious, but as a pediatrician, I can assure you that this simply isn’t true. Although we do see fewer cases of illness and death due to vaccine-preventable diseases than we have in the past (thanks to vaccines!), these diseases are still a threat. In 2014 there were 23 outbreaks of measles in the U.S. affecting 668 people from 27 states. This year, there have already been over 150 reported measles cases, most among people who were not vaccinated or who were unaware of their vaccination status. Outbreaks of whooping cough (pertussis) have also occurred in U.S. over the past few years, resulting in hundreds of infant deaths. In Maine, there have already been over 200 cases of pertussis this year, most in school-age children. Additionally, there were several reported outbreaks of chickenpox (varicella) in Maine schools at the beginning of the year. These are not mild diseases – they can be dangerous. For example, before the chickenpox vaccine, 100 kids (60 of whom were previously healthy kids) a year would die from chickenpox in this country – that’s 100 too many. Thankfully, I haven’t seen a patient die from strep meningitis in 17 years due to the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine. If we stop vaccinating, or if the trend of rejecting the vaccine schedule continues, pediatricians like me will most certainly begin seeing more unnecessary illness, severe complications resulting in hospitalizations, and deaths again.
Sticking to the Schedule
Just like the safety of vaccines, the immunization schedule is closely reviewed. The schedule is carefully arranged to maximize the effectiveness of vaccines and offer us the best possible protection, and it is designed to work with the child’s immune system. Immunity to certain diseases may not be achieved if vaccines aren’t given as intended. This summer I had 4 patients needing to redo their hepatitis B vaccine series because they were found to not be immune to hepatitis B. In review of their charts, none of them had followed the recommended schedule. Children do not receive any known benefits from following schedules that delay vaccines. In fact, infants and young children who are immunized according to schedules that spread out shots – or leave out shots – are at risk of developing diseases during the time that shots are delayed. They also risk spreading diseases to others in their play groups, child care centers, classrooms and communities – including babies who are too young to be fully vaccinated, and people with weakened immune systems due to cancer and other health conditions. If an outbreak of a vaccine-preventable disease occurs in a daycare or school, children who are not up-to-date on immunizations may be sent home until the outbreak is over, which can be weeks or months. This not only means missed school, but also missed school-related activities and sports as well as missed work for parents.
The good news is that most parents choose to immunize their children, and most parents follow the recommended immunization schedule that pediatricians and other doctors widely agree is one of the best ways to protect our health. If you find that your child has fallen behind the recommended schedule, your child’s doctor can use the catch-up immunization schedule to quickly get your child up-to-date. In Maine, we are fortunate that vaccines are provided by the state, which means that parents don’t have to worry about the cost, and all Maine children have equal access to vaccines.
A Pediatrician’s Perspective
In my 17 years as a practicing pediatrician, I’ve talked with many parents who are apprehensive about vaccines. I try to reassure them that vaccines are safe – I’ve mostly seen mild symptoms (temporary sore arms or legs, sleepiness, fussiness, and fever) following vaccines. I also help them properly do their research on vaccines so they are well informed. I view myself as the parents’ medial advisor and the parents as the ultimate decision makers. But I will share that I think the benefits far outweigh the risks when it comes to vaccines. The longer I’m in practice and the less I see of severe life threatening illness, the more I know vaccines are doing their job.
I encourage you to take a look at the vaccine schedules for children . If you have questions or concerns about vaccines, please talk to your child’s doctor. And please, vaccinate your children according to schedule!
Lynne Tetreault, MD is a native Vermonter. She received her medical degree from University of Vermont and completed residency at MMC. She’s had the privilege of caring for the area’s children for the past 17 years at MMP Pediatrics Saco. Currently she lives in South Portland with her husband.