August is National Immunization Awareness Month, a perfect time for parents to check with their child’s pediatrician to ensure vaccinations are up to date.
Vaccines save lives and protect children against preventable diseases, such as whooping cough, pertussis, diphtheria, rubella, mumps and other illnesses. In the United States, we often take for granted that so few people are afflicted with these diseases. I, for one, am lucky to have never seen a case of the measles – but these outbreaks do occur each year, even in the U.S.
How do we continue to prevent people, especially our precious children, from getting these illnesses? By keeping up to date on vaccinations. Getting vaccinated will help your child stay healthy if an outbreak does occur.
Timing of Vaccines
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s child and adolescent immunization schedule outlines when kids should get their vaccinations. The schedule is based on decades of study and experience. It is also based on when a child’s immune system is ready to respond appropriately to the vaccine, and when a child is going to be at most risk from illnesses that we are trying to protect against. The right spacing ensures that the immune system will respond appropriately to the vaccine. When we go off schedule, we don’t know whether the vaccines will be as effective, or as safe for the body.
I urge parents to stick to the schedule, particularly for children under the age of 2. Children under 2 are at highest risk from serious complications or even death from vaccine-preventable illnesses because their immune systems are young and immature.
In addition to vaccines recommended for each age group, children should also get an annual flu vaccine each fall. This is especially important for families with kids under the age of 2, who can become severely ill from the flu virus. Vaccination can help reduce the risk of severe disease. I also encourage families to stay up to date on COVID-19 vaccines and boosters.
Unfortunately, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s been a drop off in the percentage of children getting their state-required vaccinations. People were scared to go to doctor’s offices, and with kids learning remotely, some parents didn’t prioritize vaccinations. Fortunately, many families are getting back on track. With COVID-19 case rates low at this time, it’s very safe to go see the doctor for vaccinations as well as routine check-ups.
Vaccines Don’t Cause Autism
Sometimes parents say they don’t want their children to receive certain vaccinations because they are worried the vaccines will cause autism. There have been many studies, over many years, showing no link between autism and childhood vaccination. These studies have looked at both the ingredients of the vaccines and the antigens in vaccines that cause the immune response. Vaccines are very safe and effective. I would not recommend them if they caused autism.
Getting Multiple Vaccines on the Same Day
Parents sometimes ask me whether their children should receive multiple vaccinations on the same day. The answer is, generally, yes. Their bodies and immune systems are ready to handle multiple vaccines at one time, and it builds their immune system as quickly as possible. We do know that children, like adults, may experience side effects from vaccines, such as fever and redness and swelling around the injection site. Having a child experience those side effects once rather than after multiple visits in a row is more tolerable for the child – and parents!
Talking to Children About Vaccinations
I always recommend telling children in advance of their medical appointment that they are going to get vaccinations. It’s hard for children to process receiving vaccines, and surprising them may make it worse. Unexpected vaccines also can lead to children losing trust in family members and medical professionals.
Parents should avoid words that may have a negative connotation, like “shot” or “needle”, and instead use “vaccination” or “immunization.” For younger children, parents might say: “We are going to the doctor today, and you are going to get some medicine in your arm that is going to help protect you and keep you safe and healthy.” Be honest with expectations about pain – it can pinch or sting, but it won’t hurt for long.
Children may want to bring a lovey or other special toy with them to cling to during their immunizations to hold and feel comfortable.
Distraction can also help, such as talking to your child during the vaccination about things they enjoy or singing together. Sometimes we have children blow as if they are blowing out their birthday candles. This distracts their mind from the vaccine. Children may appreciate picking out a small treat after their vaccine appointment.
Parents may want to hold their children during vaccines. This is comforting for the child and helps the nurse administer the immunizations.
To help with pain, parents can also ask their child’s medical team to use a numbing spray or cream to minimize pain. There are also vibration devices that can be used to minimize the sensation of a needle being inserted.
Parents are encouraged to breastfeed babies after vaccination. This helps with pain and discomfort.
Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acetaminophen, can be given to children after vaccines. I don’t recommend giving pain relievers before immunizations because we don’t know how they may interfere with the body’s immune response to the vaccination.
Sometimes parents ask me about the HPV vaccine. This is an important vaccine for adolescents. It protects against nine strains of the human papilloma virus, including those that are responsible for causing cervical cancer in women, and penile and anal cancer in men. This vaccine is most effective when given in adolescence. We start offering it at age 9. The vaccine is given as two doses, spaced at least six months apart. If the vaccine isn’t given until a kid is 15, the teen will need three doses.
If you have any questions or concerns about vaccines and the immunization schedule, please reach out to your child’s pediatrician. We are here to inform and ensure that children are vaccinated so that they and their families remain healthy.