Each year we observe National Infant Immunization Week (NIIW) to emphasize the way routine vaccines help keep infants healthy and thriving. This year NIIW is April 27-May 4, 2019 – and it’s the 25th anniversary! Communities, doctors, and scientists across the country have joined together to highlight the critical role infant vaccination plays in protecting children since 1994. It’s now more important than ever to talk about the importance of vaccines, and how they prevent disease in the midst of a measles outbreak here in Washington State and across the country
It’s great news most parents choose the safe, recommended routine vaccination schedule. The vaccines we give children by age two protect them from 14 serious childhood illnesses like whooping cough, measles, pneumonia, and many other potentially deadly infections. The increasing numbers of children who are not receiving recommended vaccines leads to increasing numbers of vaccine-preventable diseases. Many of which are highly contagious and pose a threat to other children and adults who may be exposed to them. Some parents are choosing not to vaccinate because of misinformation about vaccines, some families are facing difficulty accessing vaccines, and some worry they can’t afford them.
Some common questions I get about vaccines are:
- What if I can’t afford vaccines for my child? – All children in Washington State are eligible for no-cost vaccinations through the Vaccines for Children fund! Washington is a universal coverage state, meaning that all children under the age of 19 can receive routine vaccinations free of charge. These are covered by a combination of federal and state funds.
- Why does my child need vaccines? – Vaccines are among the most successful and safe tools we have in preventing disease and death in infants and children. We are lucky that some vaccines are so effective in preventing illnesses that many are so rare today that new parents may not have even heard of them. One example is Haemophilus influenzae type B, or Hib. Hib is a bacteria that can cause all sorts of invasive illnesses in young children, like meningitis (an infection in the brain), pneumonia, sepsis (bloodstream infection), and others – many of them life-threatening. Hib infection will lead to death in 3-6% of children who contract the disease, and 20% of those that survive will have permanent hearing loss or neurological problems. Since routine vaccination began in the late 1980s, the rate of Hib infections in children has decreased by 99% - a huge success which has saved thousands of lives. We could see a resurgence of this and other deadly diseases, just like we are seeing with measles right now if vaccine rates drop.
- Are vaccines effective? – Yes! Efficacy rates vary slightly from vaccine to vaccine, but routine vaccinations are incredibly effective in preventing disease in children. Vaccines are estimated to prevent 381 million illnesses, 24.5 million hospitalizations, and nearly a million deaths in their lifetimes for kids born between 1994 and 2016,
- Are vaccines safe? – Yes again! Routine childhood vaccinations go through incredibly rigorous testing for safety, and are continuously being studied to make sure they remain safe and effective. Serious complications or adverse effects related to vaccines are very, very rare. There are very few children who cannot get routine vaccinations for medical reasons – usually those who have cancer or seriously compromised immune systems. We can protect these children, and those who are too young to get vaccines by making sure that everyone in the community is fully protected.
- How can I protect my baby before he or she is old enough for their first set of vaccinations? –The first set of routine vaccines happens at two months old besides a single hepatitis B vaccination given at birth (because hepatitis B can be passed to baby during delivery and mothers may not know if they are positive). There is a lot you can do to protect your baby for the first 8 weeks of life too! Pregnant women should routinely receive the flu vaccine as well as a “Tdap” (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis) booster. This protects your baby from contracting whooping cough, which can be deadly in young infants. Also make sure that any visitors to your home or anyone caring for your baby is fully protected with the recommended vaccines – this is called “cocooning” and helps protect your little one until they are old enough to get their own vaccines. Finally, if you are able to and choose to breastfeed, it helps protect your infant as well by passing along antibodies through the breast milk that help them fight off infections.
- What should I do if I have questions? – The best place to find answers is by talking with your child’s primary health care provider. They can help provide information and answer any specific questions you have. The American Academy of Pediatrics also has tons of great vaccine information for parents here.
As a pediatric hospital medicine physician, I care for seriously ill children and I see firsthand the devastation life-threatening illness causes to children and families. Having worked in other countries without access to routine vaccinations, I have cared for babies and children dying from vaccine-preventable illnesses like whooping cough, Hib, and pneumonia. These diseases don’t just occur outside the United States – I have also been in practice during multiple whooping cough outbreaks, a mumps outbreak, and now measles here in Washington State. I feel incredibly lucky to live and work in a country that provides its citizens access to a spectrum of safe, effective vaccinations to protect us against these infections. And during National Infant Immunization Week I express that gratitude, and celebrate the fact that every day parents and doctors across the country work together to protect infants against deadly diseases by giving them the recommended vaccines we are so fortunate to have
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