Vaccinations, or immunizations, are important for the health of your baby. National Infant Immunization Week, in its 20th year, continues to educate and inform parents of this important information. In the first two years of your infant’s life, vaccines can protect against 14 diseases.
How wonderful that science enables us to protect our little ones from serious diseases like polio, tetanus, and diphtheria!
Under five years of age, a child’s immune system is not developed enough to defend against some infections that can cause disability and even death. Vaccination schedules for infants are designed to protect them at times when they are most vulnerable to potentially serious diseases — diseases that are easily transmitted and quickly overwhelm an immature defense system. Vaccines contain “germs,” such as inactivated or weakened bacteria or viruses, that can stimulate an immune response. The amount and type of “germs” in vaccines are designed to help infants’ immune systems develop protection from the serious consequences of getting that disease.
Watching your baby undergo painful injections that may give them some uncomfortable reactions like fever and aches can make any parent worry, but these short-term effects are much less serious than getting the disease. For example, mothers — who may not even know they have hepatitis B because they do not show symptoms — can transmit the disease to their baby during childbirth. Years later, that child may develop serious liver disease. By routinely receiving a hepatitis B vaccine at birth, babies are protected from this life-threatening disease.
What Are Vaccines?
So how do vaccines work to protect against disease? When you are exposed to a disease, a bacteria or virus enters your body, where it can multiply and cause illness. Your immune system fights the infection by creating antibodies to kill the disease. After you recover, these antibodies remain in your body to fight that disease if you are ever exposed to it again.
Vaccines are usually made from the same germs or parts of germs that cause a disease, but they have been weakened or killed. When these “weakened germs” are injected into your body, your body reacts as if you have been exposed to the actual disease. Your immune system quickly starts a response to stop this threat by producing antibodies that attack these “germs.” You may have mild symptoms such as fever, pain at the injection site, or an achy feeling — all part of your immune system response, but you do not have the disease itself. Afterward, the antibodies your immune system made in response to the vaccine remain in your body so that if you are ever exposed to that disease again, the antibodies can ward off the infection and keep you well.
So vaccines actually prevent the disease rather than treat it.
Vaccines are not 100 percent effective, but studies have shown that MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccines protect 99.7 percent of vaccinated individuals, polio vaccines protect 99 percent after 3 doses, and varicella (chickenpox) vaccines can provide 100 percent protection from moderate to severe chicken pox. You may say that a natural infection gives your body better protection, and yes, that protection may last longer than vaccines (that’s why you may need boosters for some vaccines). But for every 1,000 cases of wild measles, you may have one case of encephalitis (a life-threatening brain infection) and two people may die. Since the MMR vaccine was introduced, that statistic has changed to one person in 1 million having encephalitis as a complication of measles. Vaccinated people also protect others because they are unlikely to catch a disease and spread it within the community.
Safety, effectiveness, and availability of vaccines are regulated by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA). Some people can be allergic to vaccines because they may contain small amounts of other ingredients needed to manufacture the vaccine, such as egg proteins, preservatives, and stabilizers. But these reactions are very rare. There is a voluntary reporting system called Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and FDA to watch for any vaccination problems. A parent, health care provider, or even a friend may report a vaccine adverse event and it will be investigated.
Unvaccinated people are at higher risk for disease than are vaccinated people. For instance, this past year there were a few deaths in the young adult population who did not receive a flu vaccine, while others who received the vaccine usually had milder symptoms if any.
Misconceptions About Vaccination
Some parents worry about vaccinating their children due to personal, religious, or philosophical reasons, or concerns about their safety. Some people feel childhood diseases we seldom see anymore are not that serious. But if we look at the recent outbreaks of pertussis (whooping cough) in the last few years because people were opting out of that vaccine, we see a serious problem. In California, a 2010 pertussis outbreak killed 10 babies. Nationwide, there were 48,277 cases of pertussis, and 20 pertussis-related deaths, reported to the CDC in 2012 — the highest number of cases since 1955. This childhood disease can be very serious and is preventable with vaccination.
A widespread myth associated with vaccine safety was linked to a study by a British doctor, Andrew Wakefield, who in 1998 suggested that the MMR vaccine caused autism in children. There were other reports that an ingredient in vaccines, thimerosal, was a possible cause. To complicate matters, autism symptoms usually begin to arise around the same age as when children receive vaccines. Since Wakefield’s report, many rigorous studies have been done and shown that neither the MMR vaccine nor thimerosal causes autism. Andrew Wakefield was found to have misrepresented his conclusion. His work was publicly retracted from medical journals and Britain stripped him of his medical license. Thimerosal was removed from all vaccines except one type of influenza vaccine in 2001 to negate any remaining fears.
Another myth concerning a link between sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and vaccines has also been studied and disproved. SIDS is the leading cause of death for infants 1 month to 1 year old. Vaccines made no difference in SIDS rates, but educating parents to put babies on their backs to sleep dramatically decreased SIDS casualties.
Because we have better sanitation and hygiene practices now, some claim we don’t need vaccines. However, statistics show the dramatic decrease in chickenpox, for example, is linked to when the vaccine became available, not just good hygiene. In the 1990s, chickenpox infected about 4 million people a year. In the mid-1990s, the chickenpox vaccine was available, and by 2004, the rate of chickenpox infections dropped 85 percent.
The diseases vaccinations prevent can be serious and have long-lasting effects. How wonderful that science has enabled us to protect our babies and children from the effects of serious diseases such as polio, tetanus, diphtheria, and many others. So vaccinate your little ones to protect them.
The immunization requirements for children up to 5 years old in Arizona can be found at the Department of Health Services’ website. If you cannot afford to vaccinate your children, Vaccines for Children is a federally funded program that provides vaccines at no cost for low-income families.