Measles. Mumps. Polio. Diphtheria. Chicken Pox. If you can’t remember what problems these diseases cause, you can thank immunizations.
Writing for the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Stanley Plotkin wrote that, “One of the brightest chapters in the history of science is the impact of vaccines on human longevity and health.” Dr. Plotkin is an expert who helped to develop vaccines for polio and rubella (also known as German measles).
In these days of Covid-19, it is easier for us to imagine the fear and danger of highly infectious diseases like those named above. We can be grateful to the many dedicated researchers who discovered and developed vaccines to protect us from diseases that used to kill or cripple thousands of children and adults. We will certainly be elated when a Covid-19 vaccine is finally available.
Meanwhile, children (and unvaccinated adults) are susceptible to a host of diseases that can easily be prevented with existing vaccines. The medical community recommends a schedule of vaccines for children to prevent these diseases as early in a person’s life as possible. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control provides these recommendations on its website, www.cdc.gov/vaccines/schedules, where a list of recommended vaccines for both children and adults is available. You might find it helpful to print out the schedule and check things off as doses are administered. If you click on the link labeled “Parent-Friendly Schedule,” you will find a document that is easy to print and can serve as a handy reference for the various vaccines needed, along with basic facts about the diseases they prevent.
Most parents understand the importance of vaccines, but they still may have questions. I’d like to share my answers to some of the most common questions I’m asked as a pediatrician.
Sometimes parents wonder why vaccines must be given to newborns. Can’t it wait until they are a little older, they wonder? Newborns are very vulnerable, so the sooner they are protected, the better. Delay could prove deadly. For example, the first dose of Hepatitis B vaccine is given at birth, with a second dose given in the next two months. While infants are born with some initial immunity, it is not strong enough or long-lasting enough to provide ongoing protection.
It is important to keep up with vaccines, according to the recommended schedule. Especially for those vaccines given in multiple doses, the timing and intervals are very important. The disease can still infect a child during a delay between doses, causing preventable illness.
Some parents also worry about giving so many shots to an infant. They worry that it is traumatic, causing too much stress for the child’s small body. The diseases themselves are far, far worse. We have forgotten the devastating effects of measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, and other dangerous childhood diseases that were once common and highly contagious.
We need to continue to vaccinate against these diseases even if it seems they have been eradicated. Measles was declared eliminated in the U.S. in 2000, so some parents were lulled into complacency, believing that vaccination was no longer necessary. A recent outbreak in New York City in 2018-2019 disproved that theory. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, 649 people contracted measles after one child returned from Israel with the disease. We are all quite aware of how quickly an infectious disease can spread, now that we have experienced Covid-19.
Some parents also worry about side effects. We have decades of clinical experience with the recommended childhood vaccines, across a broad spectrum of patients, and nothing suggests that vaccines harm children. Mild side effects like soreness, feeling tired, and a low-grade fever may occur, but severe allergic reactions to vaccines are extremely rare.
Also, there is no evidence to suggest that vaccines cause autism. Earlier fears about childhood vaccines potentially causing autism have been disproved by numerous studies. The American Academy of Pediatricians, the CDC, the American Academy of Family Physicians, Autism Speaks (an advocacy organization), and the entire medical staff at Grace Cottage Family Health all wholeheartedly support the recommendation that children receive the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. Rob Ring, Chief Science Officer of Autism Speaks, has issued the following recommendation: “Over the last two decades, extensive research has asked whether there is any link between childhood vaccinations and autism. The results of this research are clear: Vaccines do not cause autism. We urge that all children be fully vaccinated.”
Vaccines can safely prevent so many diseases. Why would you delay?
And, while we wait for a Covid-19, vaccine, we know the best prevention strategy: wear a face covering, keep proper distance from those not living in your household, and wash your hands often! Please model this behavior and teach it to your children, especially as they return to school.
Dr. Elizabeth Linder has been Grace Cottage Family Health’s pediatrician since 1997. A graduate of Pomona College and the University of Vermont School of Medicine, Dr. Linder completed her residency in pediatrics at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.