The theme for this year’s National Immunization Week, which is April 24-30, is “Immunize to stay on track.” This annual observance encourages a lifetime of good health with timely vaccinations.
Most children are born with some immunity to certain diseases. While still in the mother’s body, disease-fighting antibodies pass through the placenta from the mother to the unborn child. Breast-fed babies get additional benefits from antibodies in breast milk. In both instances, however, the immunity only is temporary and the child eventually will be at risk for diseases in the environment.
In the past, millions of children worldwide died or were disabled by diseases they had no resistance to. Hundreds of years ago, epidemics were not uncommon among people of all ages and children especially were vulnerable.
A marvelous scientific advance, vaccination is an artificial way of creating natural resistance or immunity to certain diseases. The process is accomplished by using relatively harmless substances called antigens that come from or are similar to the components of the microorganisms that cause the diseases.
These microorganisms can be viruses, such as the measles, or bacteria, such as the one that causes pneumonia. Vaccines made from these microorganisms stimulate the body’s immune system into reacting as if it was fighting a real infection. The immune system then will battle the perceived infection and will “remember” the organism so it can fight it off quickly if it enters the body in the future.
Each day, nearly 12,000 babies are born in the United States and all of them will need to be immunized against 14 vaccine-preventable diseases before age 2.
But vaccines aren’t just for babies. Parents, babysitters, older siblings and grandparents also need to be up-to-date on their shots. If you are in doubt about your vaccine records, check with your health-care provider. If you are not up-to-date, you could pass on dangerous diseases that could harm your baby.
Some parents may hesitate to take their children to get certain vaccines because they are concerned about complications or that children may even develop the illness the vaccine is supposed to prevent. While it is true that some vaccines may have side effects, the likelihood of a child developing an illness from a vaccine is very small. Not immunizing a child exposes them to far greater health risks that could do more harm than any side effects or complications.
Immunization is one of the best ways to protect a child against contagious diseases. In the United States, vaccine-preventable childhood diseases are at record or near-record lows. However, that does not mean these diseases have disappeared. Many of the viruses and bacteria that cause destructive diseases still are circulating in the United States — or they’re just a plane ride away.
It is true that a single child’s chances of catching a disease are low if everyone around that child is immunized. But if just one person thinks about skipping vaccines, chances are other people are thinking the same thing. And each child who is not immunized gives these highly contagious diseases more opportunities to spread.
Approximately 1 million kids in the United States are not fully immunized by 2 years old and while the occurrence of most vaccine-preventable diseases is declining, we have seen a resurgence of whooping cough (also called pertussis) during the past few years.
Last year, California had a whooping-cough epidemic resulting in the death of 10 infants. In all, there were more than 20,000 cases of whooping cough reported in the United States in 2010. Because of the success of vaccines in preventing disease, parents often are unaware that their children are at risk for so many serious and life-threatening diseases.
As the 1999 outbreak of encephalitis from West Nile virus in New York showed, a disease can hop halfway around the world extremely fast by simply “catching a plane.” The best way to protect your child is through immunization.
Ratcliffe is a consultant to the Coastal Health District. You can call her at 876-6399.