Immunization: More Important Than Ever

By Dr. John V. Peet, Family physician, 40 years practicing, Montgomery County

August is National Immunization Awareness Month.

Vaccines effective against infectious diseases are among the biggest success stories for public health in the United States. Properly administered, they are safe and reliable against a variety of medical conditions referred to, as a group, vaccine-preventable diseases (VPD). The immunization rates in the U.S. are very high and because of this, many VPD don’t have the social impact and visibility they once had − leading many parents to be less aware of how dangerous these diseases can be.

Parents are also confronted with conflicting, misleading and inaccurate information about vaccines. The best example of this in recent history involves concerns about the pertussis vaccine (whooping cough). Because of misinformation, some parents elected not to vaccinate their children for whooping cough and now physicians are starting to see a dramatic increase in the number of cases of whooping cough across the country.

The complication and death rate from whooping cough are significant and the benefits of getting immunized far outweigh the risks of skipping the immunization. This is especially true in pre- school aged children.

My best advice is to make sure children are properly immunized at all age levels. I have four children myself and assure you that they received all immunizations that were appropriate and available to them.

The best resource to parents for information on immunization is their primary care physician or their child’s pediatrician. An enormous amount of information is available on the Internet, although parents should be selective in the resources they consult. Many consider the most reliable sites for accurate information to be the National Center for Disease Control, the American Academy of Family Physicians and the Association American Physicians.

There has never been a more important time to emphasize this than now. Because of the dramatic influx of children coming from Central America who are entering the U.S. across the Mexican border, parents need to get their children immunized and keep their immunizations up to date as a precautionary measure.

Large numbers of these immigrant children from Central America have never had any immunization and therefore could be possible carriers of VPD. This fact dramatically increases a child’s possible exposure to dangerous VPD that are easily spread via airborne transmission such as coughing and sneezing. There has never been a more emergent time than now to keep our children up to date on their immunizations.

Many medical experts believe the U.S. will see a marked increase in VPD, especially in states along the Mexican border. An increase in the incidence of measles, mumps, whooping cough, polio and other VPD is likely. Officials will also have to deal with tuberculosis, scabies, lice and other health problems.

Certainly there is no need for a hysterical, overreaction on our part here in the U.S., but it would be profoundly foolish to pretend that these risks don’t exist. It has been estimated that approximately 90 percent of Central American children crossing into the U.S. come from communities where immunizations are free and readily available − though there is no way to document the percentage of children who have been properly vaccinated. But even if we assume that nine-tenths of these children are effectively immunized, that means for every 100,000 who cross the border, approximately 10,000 will not have had any immunization. This is a significant and potentially dangerous statistic.

Immunization is an important part of avoiding potentially dangerous diseases for all children. For many childhood diseases, there are no effective cures once contracted. Immunization can prevent or significantly lessen the effects of many diseases. This includes seasonal and regional hazards like the flu or the H1N1 virus. Immunization is an important part of childhood − all the way from infancy through the end of high school.

All of this discussion is intended to simply encourage parents to get their children immunization up to date and to encourage family physicians and pediatricians to speak to their patients regarding the importance of this preventative step. This is National Immunization Awareness Month and being informed always increases your level of awareness.

Many great researchers and scientists have devoted millions of hours to develop and insure the safety of modern vaccines. Take advantage of advances in immunization science to protect the health of your children, your patients and the children in your community.