THURSDAY, Aug. 12, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- It's August -- are your kids caught up on their shots?
With a new school year approaching, it's not too soon to call the pediatrician or family physician. August marks National Immunization Awareness Month, a time to focus attention on the importance of immunizations for people of all ages and the beginning of the rush to get appointments for children's vaccines.
"That's when parents start to think about getting their kids up-to-date on their immunizations for school enrollment," said David Neumann, executive director of the National Partnership for Immunization.
The scramble to complete school immunization forms can serve as something of a safety net, ensuring that more kids get the shots they need to stay healthy, health experts say. But parents of infants or preschoolers shouldn't wait for that annual back-to-school ritual.
"One of the problems with school entry is that the child may be way behind on immunizations and only catch up when they're getting ready to go to school," said Dr. Joseph Bocchini, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Committee on Infectious Diseases.
That's troubling, he said, because delaying or skipping immunizations poses real risks. Many vaccinations are given in a series, requiring multiple doses to provide prolonged immunity.
But there is good news: Childhood immunization rates are at an all-time high for both the old and the newer vaccines, according to a U.S. government survey released in July.
Overall, vaccination rates jumped from 74.8 percent in 2002 to 79.4 percent in 2003 in children aged 19 to 35 months, the latest National Immunization Survey found.
This included increases in the rates of coverage for chicken pox and pneumococcal pneumonia, which are the newest additions to the vaccine schedule.
Vaccines spare thousands of children and adults in the United States each year from devastating infectious diseases, says the National Network for Immunization Information.
Before 1963, when the first measles vaccine was licensed for use in the United States, for example, more than 3 million cases of measles and 500 deaths from the disease were reported annually. Thanks to widespread immunization, there has been a 99 percent reduction in the incidence of measles.
The nation's solid immunization track record also is responsible for eradicating smallpox, eliminating polio and drastically reducing Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) -- what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says was once the leading cause of bacterial meningitis among children younger than 5.
Americans must remain vigilant about vaccination, since many children in poor and developing countries aren't receiving the same protection against disease. It would only take one person flying in from overseas to cause an outbreak, experts say.
Some children tend to slip through the cracks, such as kids whose families don't have a relationship with a primary-care provider or who lack health insurance coverage.
But if lack of financial resources is a problem, it shouldn't be an excuse for skipping immunizations. The federal government has a number of programs that provide vaccines at no cost to the family, Neumann said.
Some parents express concerns about the safety of vaccines, fearing that immunizations will cause other serious medical conditions in their children. One stubborn rumor links the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine with autism, for example. But an expert committee of the federal government's Institute of Medicine concluded in a report earlier this year that there is no evidence to support such a connection.
"Vaccines are much safer than letting the child have the natural infection that the vaccine is preventing," said Bocchini, chief of pediatric infectious disease at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in Shreveport.
What's more, vaccines undergo extensive study of their effectiveness and safety, he noted. Safety studies continue even after a vaccine is on the market to ensure that any rare, adverse event that may occur is identified.
The peak period for vaccinations is from birth to age 6. But don't forget your teen, who may require certain immunizations to enter high school or college, says the National Partnership for Immunization. Many colleges now either require or recommend the meningococcal vaccine to protect against meningitis, a fatal disease in 10 percent of cases, the group says.
Adults need vaccinations, too, so check with your doctor. You might be due for a booster shot of the tetanus-diphtheria vaccine, for instance. Other vaccines may be helpful in protecting from diseases that you could be exposed to at work or traveling abroad.
And remember last winter's flu season? Maybe it's good idea to roll up your sleeve and get that influenza vaccine after all.
Kids may not appreciate the fact that the number of vaccine-preventable diseases has expanded in recent years. Before 1995, almost everyone came down with a case of chickenpox before they reached adulthood. Today, the varicella vaccine is protecting against severe cases of the itchy and highly contagious rash.
Fortunately for little ones, researchers are exploring the use of skin patches, like those used for smoking cessation, to administer vaccines, Neumann said.
Scientists also are creating combination vaccines, which reduce discomfort by slashing the number of injections required. In December 2002, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved GlaxoSmithKline's Pediarix, the first five-in-one vaccine, protecting against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, hepatitis B and polio in a three-dose vaccination series.
"The public health and the research communities are quite sensitive to the number of vaccinations that children receive over the first few years of life," Neumann said. "Certainly this is a high priority for the vaccine development community."
For more on vaccines, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.