With the start of the school year looming, parents have a lot to do. There are books and pencils to buy, backpacks to organize, new schedules to finalize. And one item that definitely needs to be on every parent’s back-to-school to-do list is a vaccination check.
“The summer is a great time to reassess if your child is up-to-date with shots,” says Linda Fu, MD, MS, associate professor of pediatrics at The George Washington University School of Medicine, and director of immunization quality improvement at Children’s National Health System in Washington, DC.
“As any parent whose child has gotten sick in the first week back at school knows, schools are one of the most common places that germs are transmitted,” Fu says. Although most infections children pick up are mild, “recently, we have seen a spike in the numbers of U.S. cases of some very serious diseases such as whooping cough, mumps, and measles.”
“You can protect your own child and help stop the spread of these and other vaccine-preventable diseases to others by making sure your child is up to date on all recommended shots,” she adds.
In December 2014, a measles outbreak started at the Disneyland theme park in California. By the following spring, five outbreaks had spread to 21 states and the District of Columbia and had sickened more than 170 people. Measles is highly contagious, and it spreads quickly. Each child who catches measles can pass it to as many as 18 other people. Experts say low vaccination rates were to blame for the Disneyland outbreak, as well as for other recent vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks.
Fears over vaccine safety have stopped some parents from following the recommended childhood immunization schedules. And even though states require schoolchildren to be vaccinated against certain diseases, in all but two states, parents can “opt-out” of vaccines for religious or philosophical reasons.
When you don’t get your kids vaccinated, you risk the health of not only your own children but also other people in your community who can’t get vaccinated for medical reasons. “If you live in one of these communities where a high percentage of children are opted-out of vaccines, vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks are more likely and everyone is at higher risk of infection,” Fu says.
Parents who are worried about risks should know that all vaccines are carefully tested to ensure they are safe. And while side effects can occur, serious health issues stemming from immunizations are very rare. “As a pediatrician and a researcher, I know that the recommended childhood vaccinations are safe and effective, and that getting them is one of the most important things I can do to protect my own children’s health,” Fu says.
Children entering kindergarten need protection against 14 potentially serious diseases, including diphtheria, hepatitis A and B, measles, mumps, and polio. Your child should have gotten most of these vaccines in the first two years of life, but he’ll need booster shots of DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis), polio, MMR (measles, mumps, rubella), and chickenpox between ages four and six.
Preteens and teens need Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis) boosters, as well as the MCV4 vaccine against meningitis. Starting at age 11, the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine is recommended for both boys and girls. And all school-aged children should get a yearly flu vaccine.
If you’re not sure which vaccines your child needs, visit our Prevention Guidelines articles, or call your pediatrician. Every time your child gets vaccinated, keep a record so you’ll know whether she’s up to date. “I suggest to my patients’ parents that they take a picture on their cell phone of their child’s shot record when I see them. That way they have their own copy of the record at their fingertips,” Fu says.
Vaccines are timed so kids get their shots when they’re at highest risk for the diseases. “Therefore, it is important to get your child caught up as soon as possible if he is behind on one or more vaccines,” Fu says. You can schedule catch-up vaccinations during your child’s back-to-school physical.
Parents don’t always keep up with vaccine recommendations, and most schools currently can’t mandate that every child get vaccinated, but that might change. In June 2015, a California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill to prevent parents from opting-out of immunizations based on religious or personal beliefs (parents can still opt-out for medical reasons). Although it will probably face legal challenges from opponents, the law could set a precedent for other states to prevent unvaccinated children from attending schools.
Fu thinks the measure is a step in the right direction. “I hope it sends a strong message to the rest of the country that the people of California are serious about protecting the health of their children and have learned from the recent measles outbreak tied to an exposure at Disneyland that unfortunately, vaccine-preventable disease can be just a visit to an amusement park or plane ride away,” she says.
August 05, 2015
Janet O’Dell, RN