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Recognizing the important of vaccines
Dr. Becky Alford
Dr. Bailey Alford - photo by Photo submitted

August is National Immunization Awareness Month and a great time to remember and recognize the importance of vaccines during childhood.

As a general pediatrician, childhood immunizations are a part of my daily practice and one of the most common topics I discuss with families. Living in the 21st century, most of us have never seen the devastation caused by most vaccine-preventable illnesses. This can make it difficult to truly appreciate the benefit of vaccines but, make no mistake, the times rampant with invasive disease due to polio, tetanus, haemophilus influenza and diphtheria are not ones we want to revisit. 

Vaccines are truly a marvel of modern medicine. Here are some of the most common vaccine questions addressed.

What diseases do vaccines protect against?

The current childhood immunization schedule protects against the following diseases:

· Diptheria: a bacteria that invades the nose and throat leaving a characteristic thick gray membrane and if left untreated can spread throughout the body causing difficulty swallowing, paralysis, and heart failure.

· Tetanus: bacteria that causes muscle stiffness and can be deadly if not treated.

· Pertussis: virus that causes the characteristic “whooping cough” that can lead to respiratory failure in infants requiring hospitalization.

· Hepatitis B: virus that causes inflammation and infection of the liver and can lead to liver damage or liver cancer.

· Polio: virus that invades the brain and spinal cord and can lead to paralysis that can be permanent or even cause death.

· Haemophilus influenzae: bacteria that causes a dangerous swelling of the epiglottis in the back of the throat that can lead to difficulty breathing.

· Pneumococcal disease: bacteria that can cause ear infections, sinus infections, pneumonia, and meningitis.

· Rotavirus: virus that can lead to severe diarrhea and dehydration.

· Measles: virus that causes cough, runny nose, pink eyes, and a characteristic rash and can lead to pneumonia or a dangerous swelling of the brain.

· Mumps: a virus that causes swelling of the salivary glands in the face and could lead to swelling of the testicles, swelling of the brain, or infection of the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord (meningitis).

· Rubella: virus that is very dangerous to pregnant women because if acquired during pregnancy can be passed to infant and cause miscarriage or severe birth defects life deafness, poor vision, or heart defects.

· Varicella: a virus that causes chickenpox. Although many get only an annoying itchy rash, some children get more invasive disease that can spread to the brain and cause swelling or cause a bloodstream infection.

· Hepatitis A: virus that causes inflammation and infection of the liver however does not usually cause long-term damage.

How is vaccine timing and spacing determined and why do some vaccines require booster doses?

The current childhood immunization schedule is a group effort supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics, Center for Disease Control, and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. When developing vaccines, determining at what age to give them depends on when the body’s immune system is the most receptive to the vaccine creating the best response and at what age they can be safely given as determined by years of vigorous research. Some vaccines require booster doses, meaning the vaccine is given more than once. This is to ensure long-term protection.

Are vaccines safe?

This is a big one, and probably the most important. As a mother myself, I understand that the health and safety of your child is your top priority. This should also be a top priority of your child’s pediatrician. There is a lot of conflicting information out there that can invoke fear and uncertainty. Bottom line, vaccines are rigorously tested for both safety and efficacy. Safety monitoring is an ongoing process that is conducted by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Vaccines are tested extensively before being licensed and then are continuously monitored while the vaccine is in use. Side effects can happen like local site redness, discomfort or fever. Serious side effects are possible but rare and are reported when they do occur so the safety of the vaccine can be re-evaluated.

Do vaccines cause autism?

No. Plain and simple. Multiple large-scale, reliable research studies have shown no relationship between vaccines and autism.

Is it “too much” for an infant’s immune system to get several vaccines in one visit?

The amount of germs an infant or young child is exposed to daily from others around them, putting hands and other items in their mouth, or going out into a public place are more than the antigens they will receive in a set of vaccines.

You are your child’s best advocate. Do your research, use reliable sources, trust medical expertise and years of scientific research, and let’s strive for a vaccine-preventable illness-free world.