Childhood Immunizations: What Parents Need to Know

August is National Immunization Awareness Month and throughout the month Health Talk will focus on several key life stages and immunizations to keep you informed and help you cut through the clutter of misinformation available online about this critical public health issue.

Health Talk spoke with Mark Schleiss, M.D., professor of pediatrics in the University of Minnesota Medical School, and he provided some useful, reliable and scientifically proven information for parents regarding childhood immunizations.

Health Talk (HT): What do parents need to know about immunizations?

Mark Schleiss (MS): First and foremost parents need to know immunization recommendations are the product of careful, thoughtful deliberation on the part of diverse experts from many walks of life. Basic research scientists, epidemiologists, economists, industry manufacturers, public health officials, and primary care physicians weigh in on this topic, and scrutiny and oversight comes from many perspectives, including federal, state and local governments.

Performance, effectiveness and, most importantly, the safety of vaccines continues to be monitored closely. Recommendations evolve in light of new disease trends. I think most parents don’t know how much effort, expense and manpower is expended – and rightfully so – to monitor the impact of vaccines on a child’s health.

HT: What are some of the milestone ages for immunizations and when should kids get boosters?

MS: The need for vaccines begins at birth and we never really “outgrow” that need. Diseases that can be fatal in newborns and young infants, such as hepatitis B and whooping cough, can be prevented by vaccination, but vaccines must be administered shortly after birth to maximize the effectiveness and impact. The needs change over the life course. A toddler entering group day care has a different set of needs for vaccines, most importantly vaccines for preventable causes of sepsis, meningitis and serious diseases like the measles. At all ages, we need protection from influenza by annual vaccination.

An adolescent needs vaccination for yet another type of bacterial meningitis and protection against sexually transmitted infections such as HPV infection. So, there are needs for vaccines at every stage of our lives!

HT: Where can parents go to get reliable, science-based information about immunizations?

MS: The CDC is a reliable and scientific source for excellent information. The American Academy of Pediatrics is another excellent source of information. I also highly recommend the National Vaccine Information Center.

HT: How do immunizations work to help protect not only the one being vaccinated but others as well?

MS: This is a very important concept that many parents may not appreciate. When a child becomes colonized with a pathogenic organism, they can spread that organism to other individuals – often, to elderly grandparents or loved ones with weakened immunity. This puts everyone at risk. Vaccination not only prevents disease but can reduce the risk of colonization and spread of the organism.

A good example of this was the finding that when we started vaccinating toddlers against infection with a virulent organism called Streptococcus pneumoniae, there was less disease seen not only in these children, but in elderly adult contacts. When enough people in a population are vaccinated, the entire population can be protected against colonization and disease – a process we call “herd immunity.” This helps move us toward the ultimate goal of any vaccine program – to reach the point where the vaccine is no longer required at all, because the disease is gone!

HT: What happens in the body when a person is vaccinated?

MS: When we vaccinate, we provide the immune system exposure to a stimulus that induces an immune response. This “stimulus” is usually called an “antigen” by scientists. By providing the antigen(s) important in immune protection against disease, we induce the immune response that can block the infection from progressing when the vaccine recipient encounters the true pathogen. That immune response usually consists of induction of an immune protection molecule in the blood called an “antibody”, but sometimes it can include induction of specific defense cells called “T cells.”

Bottom line from Schleiss: Immunizations, especially for children, are generally safe, effective and an important public health measure to help protect your child against potentially deadly/life-altering but preventable diseases. Talk to your pediatrician to learn more.

Stay tuned for more immunizations content throughout the month of August!