As summer ends and a new school year approaches, the topic in many homes of school-aged children is the trip to the pediatrician for their annual check-up. The question that most kids ask is, “Am I going to get a shot?” Parents usually politely answer with a simple, “Maybe.” Of course, the next question from your child in that less than pleasant tone is, “But why do I have to get a shot?”
Why do we give vaccines? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), among U.S. children born during 1994–2013, vaccination will prevent an estimated 322 million illnesses, 21 million hospitalizations and 732,000 deaths during their lifetimes. What most of us don’t realize is that before the turn of the century, diseases like whooping cough, measles, rubella and Haemophilus influenza — which is not the same as the flu — struck hundreds of thousands of American infants, children and adults, many of whom died as a result. Thousands of children were also stricken with polio and either died or became permanently paralyzed.
As vaccines were developed and became widely used, rates of these diseases declined. Today, most of these illnesses are nearly gone from our country. Because of this, many parents have become complacent and believe that their child is not at risk anymore. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
We know that a disease that has disappeared can suddenly return. For example, in 1974, about 80 percent of Japanese children were getting the pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine. That year there were only 393 cases of whooping cough in the entire country, and zero pertussis-related deaths. Then immunization rates began to drop until only 10 percent of children were vaccinated. In 1979, more than 13,000 people got whooping cough and 41 died. When routine vaccination was resumed, the disease numbers decreased again.
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Recently there have been sporadic cases of polio around the world, and we are seeing a similar situation in the United States. In 2013, several measles outbreaks occurred around the country, including large outbreaks in New York City and Texas — mainly among groups with low vaccination rates. And in 2015, after a large outbreak in California, measles was identified in Florida.
The likelihood of your child coming down with measles, polio, chickenpox or whooping cough might be quite low today. But vaccinations are not just for protecting ourselves. They also protect the people around us who may not be able to receive vaccines. This is called herd immunity. For example, infants aren’t immunized against measles until they are 12 months old. So if they are exposed, they are very susceptible to the disease. The infants face less risk of exposure if others vaccinate themselves.
Vaccines protect our community and future generations by keeping diseases that we have eradicated from making a comeback. History tells us if we stop vaccinating, the diseases will return. This is especially important in our community, where thousands of children from all over the world come to live. Many of these kids have not been appropriately vaccinated. Thankfully, our schools do a great job requiring all new students to have their vaccines updated prior to entering the school system.
Parents are strongly encouraged to follow the immunization schedule that is endorsed universally by every leading medical establishment, including the CDC and the American Academies of Pediatrics and Family Physicians. Vaccines have been scientifically proven to be safe. The United States currently has the safest, most effective vaccine supply in history. Vaccines undergo up to 10 years of testing, by law, before they are licensed for use. Once in use, vaccines are continually monitored for safety and effectiveness.
However, like any medication, vaccines can cause side effects. Most of these side effects are minor and include injection site reaction, mild fever, fatigue, headache and muscle and joint pain. An allergic reaction is possible, yet is extremely rare.
We encourage parents to empower themselves with valid scientific information about vaccines. The best resource is the Centers for Disease Control. Visit www.cdc.gov/vaccines for information such as recommended vaccination schedules, vaccine safety profiles, answers to common questions and more. It truly will enlighten parents who have any hesitation about immunizing their child. And discuss this information with your pediatrician. Together you can make an informed decision about what is best for your child.
Lisa Gwynn, D.O., MBA, FAAP, is Director of the Pediatric Mobile Clinic and Director of Innovation and Community Engagement at the Mailman Center for Child Development at UHealth – University of Miami Health System. The Department of Pediatrics at UHealth is nationally and internationally acclaimed for education, research, patient care and biomedical innovation. For more information, visit UHealthSystem.com/patients/pediatrics.