SUNDAY, Aug. 28, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- The science of vaccination tends to be a slow and methodical one, with doctors meticulously testing, researching and plotting the eradication of dangerous diseases.
But the past few years have yielded remarkable advances in the field of immunology, work that will improve health and safety by leaps and bounds, experts say.
These improvements should be welcome news to parents as children return to school. And doctors also reiterate to parents the importance of having their children immunized to prevent and ultimately eradicate some of mankind's most deadly infectious diseases.
Unfortunately, millions of U.S. children are not getting the scheduled immunizations they need to ward off disease, experts warn.
"Despite the success of increasing the numbers of children being vaccinated, what is very troublesome is that 2.1 million children are not getting timely vaccinations," said Amy Pisani, executive director of "Every Child By Two: The Carter/Bumpers Campaign for Early Immunization of Every Child By Two," which held a press conference on the issue earlier this month.
The problem is particularly acute in the inner city, Pisani said. "Rates among African-American children are actually 13 percentage points lower than white and Hispanic children," she said.
And, when children miss their immunization schedule, most can't catch up and are vulnerable to vaccine-preventable diseases, such as whooping cough, hepatitis, or meningitis and influenza.
Four new vaccines will be available and recommended for use by the end of the year, said Dr. Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
The vaccines target a wide range of diseases -- meningitis, rotavirus, human papilloma virus and shingles. Together, they could save thousands of lives, both young and not-so-young, each year, Offit said.
"This is a banner year," Offit said. "I don't think we're going to see another new vaccine for 10 years. I just think this has been an amazing year."
Other advances include tweaks to the immunization schedule for the diphtheria/tetanus/pertussis vaccine and flu vaccine, changes designed to tackle the continued spread of whooping cough and influenza, said Dr. Louis Z. Cooper, professor of pediatrics at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons, and a past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
"The vaccines are so remarkably safe and so remarkably effective that I, as a parent and a grandparent and a pediatrician, strongly urge parents to get all of them, and get them on time," Cooper said.
The new meningitis vaccine -- endorsed last year by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- in particular has the potential to prevent hundreds of gruesome deaths and thousands of life-altering illnesses, Offit said.
"This is a vaccine that will prevent a bacteria that creates both bloodstream infections and meningitis in about 3,000 people a year, most of them children, and 300 deaths a year," Offit said.
Meningococcal disease is caused by Neisseria meningitidis, a common bacterium that invades the body to infect the lining of the brain or the bloodstream. Even when the disease isn't fatal, it can cause lifetime brain damage, hearing loss, loss of limbs, or kidney failure, Offit said.
The CDC recommends that all students entering middle school and high school and all college freshmen living in dormitories receive the new meningococcal vaccine.
Other new vaccines treat or prevent:
- Rotavirus, a germ that causes severe diarrhea in children, usually with fever and vomiting. "It's a very common cause of doctor visits and hospital visits in young children," Offit said. "About one of every 50 children in this country will be hospitalized due to dehydration related to rotavirus," he said.
- Human papilloma virus, a leading cause of cervical cancer and genital warts. "There are more than 10,000 new cases of cervical cancer each year," Offit said. "This will prevent about 70 percent of the strains that cause cervical cancer," he added.
- Shingles, an outbreak of rash or blisters on the skin that is caused by the same virus that causes chicken pox. "It's for people over 60 years of age, and it will reduce their chances of getting shingles by at least 50 percent," Offit said.
Doctors also are improving the immunization schedules of already-developed vaccines, in response to surges in certain diseases.
For example, a booster dose of an improved tetanus-diphtheria-pertussis vaccine now is recommended for teens and adults every 10 years. This is to better prevent pertussis, or whooping cough, which has been on the rise since the 1980s and can be fatal to children.
"We've recognized that we're seeing a gradual increase of whooping cough in this country, and realized this reflects the gradual waning of vaccinations given years before," Cooper said.
Referring to the new vaccine schedule, Offit said, "If we really do follow up on this recommendation, we'll go a long way toward eradicating whooping cough from this country."
Another vaccination schedule advance involves expansion of the age range for children receiving influenza immunization, Cooper said.
Until recently, flu vaccination had been recommended for children between 6 months old and 2 years old. Now, doctors are recommending that children as old as 5 years of age get vaccinated for the flu, along with their parents and caretakers, Cooper said.
"This is in recognition that not only do young kids get influenza, but that they are important in its spread," he said.
To learn more, visit the U.S. National Library of Medicine.