If It's Back to School, It's Also Vaccine Time

Experts say the shots are a crucial weapon against disease

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HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, Aug. 20, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- As another school year approaches, health experts are singing a familiar refrain: Get your child vaccinated against communicable diseases.

And even though vaccines have helped tame or wipe out some of the most deadly diseases, about 15 percent of adults still don't believe inoculations are necessary to prevent certain diseases. And a persistent rumor linking vaccination with autism has led some parents to keep their children from being immunized.

Immunization proponents are using National Immunization Awareness Month -- August -- to try to dispel fears and fight disease.

Dr. Paul Offit, a noted immunologist, pointed out that vaccines receive better testing than regularly used medicines such as antibiotics, nutritional supplements or cough suppressants.

"I think you could argue that vaccines are the safest, best-tested things we could put in our bodies," said Offit, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

And health experts like to say that vaccines have become a victim of their own success. If diseases such as measles, diphtheria and whooping cough were to resurface unchecked, thousands of American children would die.

The controversy about autism and vaccines began with a 1998 article that cited studies of 12 children with pervasive developmental disorder. Eight of the children exhibited behavioral problems that began after they received the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine, according to their parents and doctors.

Doctors hoped to quash the vaccination-autism controversy with a report released by a U.S. government panel in May. The report from the Institute of Medicine collected all of the available evidence and found no connection between vaccines and the disorder.

David Neumann, executive director of the National Partnership for Immunization, said the report has helped educate parents on the fence about whether their children should be vaccinated.

"For some parents, it probably has provided a level of clarity in the sense that if they were hesitant about having their children immunized, they are less so now," Neumann said.

But doctors still haven't been able to convince vaccination opponents who operate Web sites arguing against immunization.

"I don't think we're going to persuade those people," said Neumann, whose group works to improve the effectiveness of efforts to reduce vaccine-preventable diseases among children and adults.

"They [opponents] have convinced themselves that vaccines are a source of harm rather than a source of disease prevention," he added. "There's probably little anyone will be able to say or any amount of scientific evidence that could be presented that would convince them otherwise."

Poll numbers back up Neumann's assessment. Of the 15 percent of people who don't believe vaccines are necessary, 64 percent do not believe it is easy to get trusted information about immunization, according to an annual immunization survey taken by the U.S. government.

Health experts counter there are several vital reasons why parents should get their children immunized.

First, vaccines protect kids against virulent diseases that are still present in the United States.

"Just because we don't see measles or chicken pox sweeping through our schools or communities doesn't mean they're not there," Neumann said. "They're there, but we're holding them at bay through our immunization programs."

The vaccines also shield the United States against diseases that have been eliminated from this country but are still present in the world, Offit said.

"Because international travel is common, there's a risk diseases like diphtheria and polio that are gone here could come back into the country," Offit said. "When those diseases are eliminated from the world, we would consider dropping those vaccines. Not before that happens."

Most parents do follow government guidelines regarding childhood vaccination. About 94 percent of American parents reported having their youngest child immunized according to recommended guidelines, the National Immunization Survey found.

For children 2 years of age and younger, vaccines protect against such preventable diseases as chicken pox, diphtheria, measles, mumps and polio, according to experts such as Offit.

The vaccines that health authorities recommend for children include:

  • the first hepatitis B (Hep B) vaccine before leaving the hospital;
  • at 2 months, the second Hep B vaccine; the combined diphtheria and tetanus toxoids and acellular pertussis (DTaP) vaccine; the inactivated polio vaccine (IPV); the first haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib) vaccine; and the pneumococcal vaccine (PCV);
  • At 4 months, the second DTaP shot; the second IPV vaccine; the second Hib vaccine; and the second PCV vaccine;
  • At 6 months, the third DTaP; the third Hib vaccine; and the third PCV vaccine;
  • at 12 months, the first measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine, normally combined in one shot; along with a varicella vaccine to prevent chicken pox;
  • the 15-month vaccines are the third Hep B vaccine, and the fourth Hib and PCV vaccines;
  • at 18 months, the fourth DTaP vaccine, along with the third IPV vaccine.

More information

For more on childhood vaccines, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCES: Paul Offit, M.D., chief, Division of Infectious Diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia; David Neumann, executive director, National Partnership for Immunization, Alexandria, Va.

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