Even as summer’s festivals, picnics and vacations continue to keep families busy, “Back to school” reminders are showing up in stores everywhere.
That means it is also time to think about getting children their booster shots.
Students entering school are required to have received a total of 21 immunization doses for eight different diseases. Fortunately for needle-shy children, many childhood injections cover more than one disease.
Tetanus, diphtheria, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis B and chicken pox are all required for kindergarten and seventh graders require a recent tetanus-diphtheria-pertussis booster and one dose of meningococcal conjugate vaccine against some types of meningitis and sepsis.
Although not required, there also are vaccines available for influenza and human papillomavirus, known to cause cervical and throat cancer.
Local experts say vaccines have proven their value.
“In the United States and a handful of other industrialized countries, these vaccines have been able to prevent and in some cases eliminate diseases that have killed hundreds of thousands of children in the U.S. over the years,” said Dr. Matthew Masiello, chief wellness officer at the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at Windber Research Institute. Masiello is also a pediatrician.
“These vaccines have significantly reduced morbidity and mortality for diseases that were very common as recently as 20 years ago.”
Conemaugh Physicians Group pediatrician Dr. Lawrence S. Rosenberg says vaccines have increased life expectancy by 10 to 15 years.
“It’s amazing,” Rosenberg said. “In the 1950s, if someone made it to 100 years old, the president of the United States would give you a call because it was so rare. Now it’s common.”
The change is evident in Johnstown, he continued.
“When I started in Johns-town years ago, there were 48 pediatric beds in four hospitals,” he said. “Now there are six.
“Kids are healthier. There are a lot of diseases that caused a majority of problems in the kids that are not around anymore. That is a major advance.”
But the success has created another problem, the federal Food and Drug Administration observes on its website. Because parents today don’t see the devastating effects of the diseases targeted by vaccines, they are questioning the wisdom of making their children get the shots.
“Because of high vaccine coverage rates today, one may focus on rare, potentially vaccine-associated adverse effects,” the website says. “But before vaccines were introduced, there were over 175,000 cases of diphtheria annually, over 147,000 cases of pertussis and over 503,000 cases of measles.”
Many of the concerns note an increase in autism since mass inoculations were required. The autism concerns often cite the use of lead in a preservative once used in many vaccines.
But public concern, technological advances and FDA recommendations ended the use of lead in almost all children’s vaccines manufactured after 2001. Some flu shots still contain the preservative, but pediatricians can get the no-lead version.
The FDA admits vaccines aren’t perfect, but stresses the value in reducing illness and saving lives in the total population.
“While vaccines are extremely safe and effective, no medical product is 100 percent safe or effective,” the website says. “Vaccines have been proven, over decades, to be one of the safest and most powerful disease prevention tools available.”
Just because the once-common diseases are not around doesn’t mean they won’t come back. Residents of Washington state were reminded of the bad old days when pertussis, or whooping cough, swept through parts of the state last year. The outbreak brought 90 cases and seven deaths in a county near Seattle, Rosenberg said.
Reports showed Washington parents were choosing not to vaccinate their children in higher numbers than the rest of the nation.
“The sad thing is, it is entirely preventable,” Rosenberg said. “People are putting their children at risk for no good reason.”
Vaccination programs work best when everyone takes part, experts say, calling it “herd immunity” that helps prevent small outbreaks from spreading.
And just because the diseases are rare in this country and everyone else in the classroom has had their shots, doesn’t mean a child won’t come in contact with the dangerous microorganisms, Rosenberg said.
“You never know who is going to be next to you in a plane or handling food in a market,” he said. “Even if they are considered mild childhood diseases, they can be devastating if you pick them up as an adult or when you are pregnant.”
Concern about vaccination programs is nothing new, Masiello said.
“All of these have met with controversy over the years, as far back as when we started having vaccination programs,” he said. “The benefits overcome the controversy.”
He and his colleagues in the medical community, along with community and school leaders, have a responsibility to help the public understand, Masiello said.
“All of the controversy lies in the lack of our ability to educate the public,” Masiello said. “We need to maximize the level of education to the parents and to adolescents.”
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