What is a vaccine?
Vaccines are an amazing weapon of defense. By administering a preparation of killed microorganisms, living attenuated organisms, or living fully virulent organisms, we can produce or artificially increase immunity to a particular disease. We can protect ourselves and our children with "immunity" to diseases like Hepatitis B or even Smallpox.
Importance of Vaccination
Immunization is not a simple problem with a simple answer. According to Dr. Douglas Stein, a Pediatrician affiliated with Tri-City Medical Center, everyone is susceptible to disease, but infants are especially vulnerable.
"We worry about two bacteria: Haemophilis influenzae bacteria (or Hib) and Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria (or pneumococcal congugate). These two cause all types of illness, but when a child is very small, these diseases can cause meningitis."
Meningitis is an infection in the covering of the brain that can cause brain damage. As Dr. Stein says, "You only have one brain. You don't want to mess with it."
Doctors are able to treat these infections with antibiotics, but there is still risk, and immunization (with the Hib and Prevnar vaccines) is the best answer. "We try to start vaccines at two months of age and continue vaccinating at specific intervals to prevent many illnesses for life."
Childhood before Vaccines
With bioterrorism in the news these days, we should be thankful that we're not terrorized by the serious infectious diseases faced by our parents and grandparents when they were children.
It wasn't so long ago that polio would paralyze nearly 10,000 children in the U.S. each year. It's still common in India. Rubella (German measles) would cause birth defects and mental retardation in as many as 20,000 newborns. Measles would infect about 4 million children, killing several thousand. Diphtheria, still a problem in Russia, would stalk American school children, leaving thousands dead. Bacterial meningitis would follow the flu, with its dangerous roulette of brain damage.
Take a quick look at a few of the diseases your immunized baby will miss.
The Decision to Protect
The goal of Dr. Stein and other pediatricians is immunization for life. "In the early years it is especially important to prevent disease because the effects of illness can be much worse when you're young."
"Different illnesses have different issues," says Dr. Stein, "For example, Measles is toxic; it can cause death. Rubella is not as hard on someone who gets it, but in a pregnant mother it can have devastating consequences for an infant in utero."
The diseases we've conquered could return with devastating consequences if we allow immunization coverage rates to fall. The decision to vaccinate is a decision to protect.
Concerns about Vaccination
Because childhood diseases are declining, thanks to immunization, some people question the need for all the shots. Others worry about side-effects and the safety of the vaccines themselves. Research and the numbers, however, are on the side of immunization.
"It's like wearing a safety belt," says Dr. Stein. "The possibility does exist that if an accident occurs the belt may actually cause injury, but compare that slim possibility to the number of lives that safety belts save. Sure, there's a possibility of complications, but the side effects of immunization are much, much safer than your child getting the illness."
If you do come across information about immunization that worries you, first consider the source. As Dr. Stein says, "Everyone that has an opinion throws it on the Internet." Look for research by known medical organizations or publications by reputable medical journals. Better yet, ask your pediatrician if what you have heard is true.
Rigorous Standards, Advanced Research
Immunization is getting safer all the time, due to advances in medical research and ongoing review by doctors, researchers and public health officials. As an example of progress, Dr. Stein cites the Polio vaccine.
"We used to give it orally, as a live virus. In rare cases, people developed Polio. Now the vaccine is injectable, it is no longer a live virus, but it offers same level of protection. It's very safe, and we haven't seen polio in this country for about 30 years, although it is still quite prevalent in parts of the world."
Vaccine manufacturers adhere to very strict standards and continue to improve their drugs. Your baby will be happy to know that, according to Dr. Stein, there may soon be combination vaccines that will require fewer shots to deliver the same number of vaccines.
Immunization and Life in San Diego
Schools require immunization records for children for the safety of all the students and the community. Unfortunately, some children get through the system without vaccination, and especially here in San Diego, it is a danger to the child.
"We have so much travel and tourism in Southern California, and that combined with our proximity to the border causes higher exposure to disease than other places," says Dr. Stein. "If you don't want to be vaccinated, you might want to consider living somewhere else with less exposure risk. An unvaccinated child is definitely at risk here."
Keeping Up and Keeping Records
Parents need to take responsibility for their children's immunization schedule. When your infant is first immunized, the doctor gives you a yellow card for your immunization records. It's a very important card; keep it somewhere safe and make copies. Schools will insist on seeing it, and your child will need it to visit the hospital, go to camp, and participate in any number of activities.
If you lose your child's immunization record, your doctor's office will help you update it. All physicians keep records. It's possible to put together the pieces and get back up to date.
Where to Go
There's no need to fall behind on your child's immunization schedule because of insurance or job-related complications. County health clinics provide the same vaccines as pediatricians do, and they are available at little to no cost for everyone. Use the information below to find out where to go and how to get caught up.
County of San Diego
County of San Diego, Health and Human Services Agency: Public Health Immunization Clinics
CDC: Childhood Immunization Schedule
CDC: Immunization Catch-up Schedule
Quick Run-down of Preventable Childhood Diseases
For more information, see the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Parents Guide to Childhood Immunization.
Hepatitis B (Hepatitis B vaccine). This virus attacks the liver and can cause lifelong infection, cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver, liver cancer, liver failure, and death. Most unvaccinated infants (90%) infected at birth develop chronic liver disease.
Diptheria (DTP Vaccine). George Washington died from it, and it's still a problem in Russia. A nasty, extremely contagious bacteria that can cause a membrane in the throat and prevent breathing, and produces a powerful toxin that can cause heart failure and paralysis.
Tetanus (DTP Vaccine). Even adults need boosters for "lock jaw," because it's so potent and still rampant in other places in the world. Caused by an bacteria-produced exotoxin, this acute, often fatal disease causes rigidity and muscle spasms.
Pertussis (DTP Vaccine). Also called whooping cough, pertussis is an acute bacterial disease involving the respiratory tract, characterized by paroxysmal coughing. Extremely communicable, it has a high fatality rate for infants.
Haemophilis Influenzae serotype b (Hib vaccine). No common flu, before the vaccine this disease was the most common cause of bacterial meningitis in infants and children. Transmitted by respiratory droplets, it killed about 600 children each year, and left many survivors with deafness, seizures, or mental retardation.
Polio (IPV inactivated Polio vaccine). The single most dreaded childhood disease of the 20th century, polio killed thousands and paralyzed tens of thousands. India and other countries are still battling it. Caused by a virus, it starts like a cold and progresses to severe muscle pain and paralysis.
Measles (MMR vaccine). Formerly a common part of childhood, most of us who suffered through the rash don't know how serious the disease is. It can cause encephalitis (leaving a child deaf or retarded), and 1-2 out of every 1,000 children who get it, die from it.
Mumps (MMR vaccine). The common "swollen glands" disease, usually mild, mumps can cause meningitis and encephalitis and sometimes deafness. It can now be prevented with the MMR vaccine.
Rubella (MMR vaccine). Also called the "German measles," usually mild, rubella's greatest danger is to unborn babies. If a woman gets rubella during the early months of her pregnancy, there is an 80% change the child will be born with birth defects. Immunization helps the immunity of everyone.
Chicken Pox (Varicella 5 vaccine). A usually mild virus causing rash, itching and fever, it can lead to serious skin infections, scarring, pneumonia, brain damage and even death. Hundreds of thousands of people who had chickenpox as children suffer from shingles (a painful inflammation of the nerves) as adults.