Preventing Childhood Diseases Requires a Community Commitment
This post is part of a blog relay sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in recognition of National Infant Immunization Week (NIIW). You can follow the conversation on social media using hashtag #NIIW and join the #VaxQA Twitter Chat Wednesday, April 20th at 4 p.m. ET
Protecting kids from disease requires more than just getting them their recommended childhood vaccinations. It requires the commitment of an entire community.
Thanks to an abundance of evidence based research, we’re constantly learning new and improved ways to protect our children; from safer rear-facing car seats with five-point harnesses, to wearing bike helmets and recommending that babies sleep on their backs. Thankfully, advancements in medical science have also led to safe and effective vaccines that can protect today’s children from as many as 14 potentially deadly diseases.
This commitment to scientific research has provided us with the safest, most effective vaccine supply in history. Today’s vaccines not only contain less antigens than they did years ago, but they have fewer side effects. There is even a system in place to continually evaluate vaccine safety and a process to update and improve vaccine recommendations as new information and science becomes available.
The impact of infant immunizations is monumental.
It is estimated that vaccines administered to American children born between 1994-2013 will prevent an estimated 322 million illnesses, 21 million hospitalizations, and 732,000 deaths. In looking at the incidence of specific diseases like measles, we can see how beneficial childhood vaccines have been. For instance, before the U.S. measles vaccination program started in 1963, about 3–4 million people in the U.S. got measles each year. In comparison, last year we had 189 cases and even that seemed like a lot.
While these successes are to be applauded, there’s still more that can be done to protect today’s children and future generations from dangerous diseases.
Timely childhood vaccinations are critical.
The recommended childhood vaccination schedule is specifically designed to provide immunity at a time when infants and young children are at the greatest risk of contracting potentially life-threatening diseases.
Take Hepatitis B for example. If a child contracts this disease before the age of one, there is a 90% probability that they will develop chronic symptoms later in life. However, only 30% of children who contract hepatitis B between the ages of one and five will go on to develop these chronic issues.
But vaccinating babies isn’t enough to ensure children will grow to be healthy adults.
Keeping children safe from preventable disease requires community immunity.
Because widespread vaccination programs have been so effective in preventing diseases in the U.S., many parents don’t realize that diseases like polio and diphtheria still exist. Some don’t consider diseases like whooping cough, varicella or measles to be a serious threat to their children. This miscalculation of risk can lead to vaccine complacency or refusal.
But the fact is that vaccine-preventable diseases are still circulating in the U.S. and around the world. Even when diseases are rare in the U.S., they can still be commonly transmitted in many parts of the world and brought into the country by unvaccinated individuals, putting entire communities at risk.
This explains the recent resurgence of measles cases in the U.S. , despite measles having been declared eliminated from the U.S. in 2000. Today’s outbreaks are often the result of unvaccinated individuals who contract the disease oversees and then return to the states where they spread it to others. But unvaccinated individuals don’t just put themselves at risk; their choices impact the health of our communities as a whole.
For instance, in 2014 668 people in the U.S. were diagnosed with measles. Most of these people were not vaccinated and 60 of these people were responsible for bringing measles into the U.S. after getting infected in other countries. Then in 2015, 189 measles cases were reported in the U.S. Again, most of those infected were not vaccinated. Sadly, almost one in ten of those infected were babies too young to have received the first of two recommended doses of MMR vaccine (measles, mumps, rubella) that is administered beginning at one year of age.
It’s important to remember that not all individuals can be vaccinated.
Some are too young for certain vaccines. Others have severe allergies, weakened immune systems or other medical conditions. Therefore, the best way to reduce the risk of disease among children is to ensure that a large majority of the community has adequate immunity. This “community immunity” concept depends on the vaccination of everyone who is able to get vaccinated, which then helps provide protection to those who can’t be vaccinated. So, for community immunity to be effective, we need everyone to be up-to-date on their vaccines, not just children.
For some vaccines, the immunity that we receive from childhood vaccines may wane during our adolescence or adult years.
In these cases, booster shots are recommended to extend immunity. This is especially critical in helping to prevent outbreaks of diseases like pertussis (also known as whooping cough).
Every Child By Two has recently launched a new program initiative called Vaccinate Your Family in which they emphasize the need for vaccinations throughout the lifespan. By offering resources such as those found in the Grandparent Toolkit, Every Child By Two is helping to explain how vaccinating people of all ages can help to reduce the incidence of disease among children.
For instance, while whooping cough can be a nuisance to adults, it is often life-threatening to infants. In fact, 90% of pertussis associated deaths have been among infants who are less than one year old. But research indicates that 85% of infants who have contracted the disease will get it from a member of their immediate or extended family when a source of infection could be identified.
This is why pertussis infection is a prime example of how vaccines for adolescents, adults, pregnant women and people over the age of 50 are critical to protecting the youngest and most vulnerable members of our community.
Childhood immunizations help keep us all healthy.
An added bonus of childhood immunizations is that they can also help to reduce the incidence of disease among people of all ages. We can use invasive pneumococcal disease as an example. Following the introduction of the PCV7 vaccine in 2000, we’ve seen a dramatic decline of disease among children under the age of five, but also a 64-77% reduction in incidence of disease among older children and adults.
This pneumococcal example illustrates that the benefit of many childhood vaccines extends beyond the individual child being vaccinated.
Protecting children before they are born.
It’s comforting to know that we’re discovering exciting new ways to help protect babies from diseases like whooping cough and influenza by vaccinating women during pregnancy. Vaccines don’t just help keep expectant moms healthy and disease free, they protect the unborn baby as well. Research indicates that infants born to mothers who received the influenza vaccine during pregnancy have a lower risk of contracting flu or being hospitalized due to flu.
A mother’s immunity to whooping cough and influenza transfers to the baby through the placenta and provides added protection to the baby after birth and before they are old enough to receive their own recommended vaccines.
Immunization is a shared responsibility.
During the 2016 National Infant Immunization Week we want to highlight the value of childhood vaccines and the role that the community plays in ensuring the health of our children. We hope that families, healthcare professionals, public health officials and policy makers will continue to work together to ensure that community vaccination rates remain high across the nation to help keep our children healthy.