Back-to-school events are drawing near this August, and it is a prime time for ensuring that children are up-to-date on all their immunizations.
What is immunization?
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, immunization refers to the process by which a person becomes protected against a disease, usually through vaccinations. A vaccination uses a weakened or partial virus or bacteria to trigger an immune system reaction. The immune system reaction reduces the chances of developing illness if a person is later exposed to the actual virus or bacteria.
Why is it important to be vaccinated?
"Vaccinations are the most effective protection against disease," says Lt. Col. Laura Pacha, disease epidemiology program manager at the U.S. Army Public Health Command. "Through vaccinations, naturally occurring smallpox was eliminated around the world. Routine childhood vaccinations have meant some diseases, like polio, have been eradicated from the United States. The impact of others has been greatly reduced. However, these diseases, including polio, still circulate in other parts of the world, so reintroducing them to the U.S. may be only a plane ride away."
Not only should adults be vigilant in their vaccinations to prevent spreading diseases to their children and others, but the children themselves need the protection.
"Children are a vulnerable population," said Maj. Jasmine Peterson, an Army public health nurse at the USAPHC. "The risk of spreading disease among them is higher due to their interaction with other children in various settings."
What are the common vaccines recommended for children?
The required vaccinations vary between states and different ages; for more information contact your healthcare provider or local health department. Here is a list of commonly required vaccinations for children:
• MMR (measles, mumps, rubella)
• DTaP or Tdap (diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis)
• Varicella (chickenpox)
What are the benefits of getting immunized?
Army public health experts say the advantage of vaccinations is not just protection for the individual who chooses to be immunized.
"When enough people in a community have immunity to a disease, opportunities for an outbreak are reduced because protected individuals interrupt disease spread," said Pacha. "Even more importantly, vulnerable persons who cannot receive certain vaccines--such as infants, pregnant women, or immunocompromised individuals--get some protection because the spread of contagious disease is contained."
Additionally, health experts say that when individuals choose not to get immunized, outbreaks of a disease can occur.
"Unfortunately, in some communities, immunization rates have dropped, and we see outbreaks of diseases we thought had been controlled," Pacha said.
Measles is just one example. According to the CDC, there have been multiple outbreaks of measles across the United States in 2014, almost 600 cases.
"Most of the cases had never received measles vaccination," said Pacha. "This is the highest number of cases since 2000, when measles was considered eliminated from the United States--and the year isn't over yet."
What are possible side effects of immunizations?
According to Army public health nursing personnel, common side effects resulting from a vaccination shot, if any, would be redness, swelling or soreness at the site of the injection. There could possibly be a low-grade fever that goes away after a few days. More serious side effects are exceptionally rare.
"If your child has any health concerns or special health needs prior to the shot, contact your healthcare provider and discuss the best course of action," says Peterson.
What are common misconceptions about vaccinations?
Some people believe that there is a possibility that the vaccine could actually give you the real virus and cause you to be very sick. Health experts say vaccines cannot cause your children to contract the actual disease.
Another misconception is that 'natural infection' is preferable to vaccine-induced immunity.
"Natural infection is unpredictable and risky; severe or even fatal illness could result," said Pacha. "Preventing illness and its complications are precisely the reasons vaccines were developed."