Once upon a time, diseases like diphtheria – a highly contagious bacterial infection – and whooping cough, or pertussis, were common in the United States.
“In the 19th and early 20th centuries, these illnesses struck hundreds of thousands of people in the United States each year, mostly children, and tens of thousands of people died,” the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases notes. “The names of these diseases were frightening household words. Today, they are all but forgotten. That change happened largely because of vaccines.”
In a way, vaccines help the body get to “know” its enemies. They contain the killed or weakened germs or a part of germs that cause disease. This stimulates the immune system to produce blood proteins called antibodies to take on specific antigens, or foreign particles like microorganisms and viruses that attack the body. That equips the body to fight off those diseases.
Today, though, there’s concern about vaccine hesitancy among some parents and a resurgence of certain diseases like measles. Cases of the highly infectious viral disease that can cause serious complications for small children recently hit a 25-year high in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as the disease returns with some international travelers. For most people, clinicians say, the idea that we may lose some widespread immunity to eradicated or largely eliminated diseases is hard to even fathom, since immunization is a longtime standard practice.
“We’ve come to a point now where most adults have not lived in a time when vaccines weren’t widely used at least in the United States,” says Dr. Sankar Swaminathan, chief of the infectious diseases division at the University of Utah. “So I think people don’t have a good appreciation of what life would be like without the general protection that’s afforded by vaccines.”
But now is not the time to let down our guard, experts say. Rather, for babies to adolescents to older adults – and ages in between – health officials say it’s important to follow vaccine recommendations to protect yourself and others.
Infant and Childhood Vaccines
Parents are advised to follow an immunization schedule for children and adolescents up to age 18 that’s recommended by the CDC, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Family Physicians and American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
From birth to 15 months, in particular, many immunizations – and often multiple doses of the vaccine – are recommended to protect against various diseases, from hepatitis B, a liver infection, which can cause cause anything from mild illness lasting weeks to severe illness that lasts a lifetime, the CDC notes, to polio, an infectious disease that in its most severe form can cause paralysis and even death.
The recommended vaccines for babies 0 to 15 months include:
- Hepatitis B
- Diphtheria, tetanus and acellular pertussis
- Haemophilus influenza type b
- Pneumococcal conjugate
- Inactivated poliovirus
- Measles, mumps, rubella
- Hepatitis A
While some parents may be overwhelmed by the number of shots their children get, experts say it’s imperative to discuss concerns – including benefits and risks – with a clinician before making any decisions that deviate from the recommended vaccine schedule.
“I think it’s important not to minimize parents’ concerns,” Swaminathan says, and he adds that just because someone has concerns doesn’t many they’re anti-vaccines. “But even people who don’t hold strong beliefs one way or the other, if they’re in a community, if their peer group is not doing something,” he adds, “there’s a tendency to believe that that’s the right thing to do.”
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