We try our best to keep our children healthy and safe. We make sure they eat right, wash their hands, and wear their bike helmets. Unfortunately, many kids are going without a vital protection—the protection that vaccines offer against childhood diseases. Recent outbreaks of measles and mumps, along with an increase in cases of whooping cough, are grim testimony to missed immunizations.
Smallpox, diphtheria and polio, one-time scourges of childhood, have been virtually eliminated through the use of vaccines. What’s more, haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) has been steadily declining since a vaccine was introduced in 1985. Hib is a major cause of bacterial meningitis (an infection in the brain) and pneumonia in children younger than 5. Before the Hib vaccine, 12,000 children developed meningitis each year. Up to one child in 20 who had meningitis died, and one in four suffered brain damage. Today, the vaccine has nearly eradicated Hib infections among immunized children in the U.S.
It’s important not only that children are vaccinated, but that they’re vaccinated on schedule, because infants and toddlers are most vulnerable to the effects of childhood diseases. Although most children get their recommended shots prior to entering school, those who are vaccinated late will have missed being protected during the most crucial years. For example, children between the ages of 6 months and 1 year are especially susceptible to Hib infection.
Why do some parents put off vaccinating their children? Studies show that cost isn’t the issue for most parents; free vaccines are offered at many clinics. In some cases, however, clinic rules against vaccinating children with minor illnesses require parents to plan a return trip to the clinic, which may be hard to arrange because of transportation difficulties or trouble getting more time away from work.
But the main reason so many children go unvaccinated seems to be that many parents don’t realize how dangerous vaccine-preventable diseases are; others worry about side effects of vaccines themselves.
Most people are aware of the paralysis that polio can cause. But other childhood illnesses can have consequences that are just as devastating:
- Mumps can cause hearing loss and, in older boys, sterility. One child in 10 who gets mumps will get meningitis, which can cause brain damage or death.
- Measles can cause ear infections, pneumonia and, in rare instances, encephalitis (an inflammation of the brain). During the measles epidemic in 1989–91, there were 132 deaths. Most were unvaccinated babies and toddlers.
- The complications of whooping cough (pertussis) include pneumonia, convulsions and encephalitis. Whooping cough can be life-threatening, particularly in children under age 1. Prior to the introduction of pertussis vaccine, whooping cough was a major cause of death in American infants.
Some parents may hesitate to vaccinate their children out of concern about the safety of vaccines. Before any vaccine is approved for use, it’s tested and evaluated thoroughly in the laboratory and in clinical trials in people. This process takes years, ensuring that the vaccines available today are remarkably safe and effective. The most common side effects are limited to pain and redness at the injection site. A slight fever and/or a rash may also occur with some vaccines. Some children may seem drowsy or cranky for one to two days following an immunization.
The pertussis vaccine is the vaccine most often blamed for serious side effects, ranging from fever to seizures, brain damage, and even death. One child in 1,750 may have a convulsion (a jerking or staring spell), usually from a high fever that may happen after the shot. Yet recent studies show no association between the pertussis vaccine and serious neurological effects or brain damage.
Experts agree that the benefits of protecting children from the complications of these diseases far outweigh the risks of any vaccinations. These vaccines protect against a host of dangerous childhood diseases. By immunizing on time, you’re providing your child with the best possible defense against them.