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Start Early with Immunizations to Protect Your Baby

April 23, 2013

Today, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), most diseases in the U.S. are at record low levels, indicating that vaccines are doing their job of providing protection. This is good news, but it doesn't mean parents no longer need to follow the recommended schedule of vaccines for children, including infants.

"Vaccines protect children against serious and even deadly disease," the HHS states on its Web site.

Vaccinations are designed to prevent a wide range of diseases, including but not limited to whooping cough, tetanus, polio, chickenpox, measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis and cervical cancer, as well as various forms of meningitis, pneumonia and some respiratory illnesses.

"Some of these illnesses are more well-known because of media coverage, especially whooping cough. Others are less well-known, seemingly 'of the past,' such as polio," said Swetha Kowsik, M.D., a pediatrician with Washington Township Medical Foundation, who is also on the medical staff at Washington Hospital. "The important thing to remember about diseases we think of as being 'of the past' is that they can easily come back if people don't continue to get vaccinated."

Helping infants fight infection

Beginning at birth, babies should get started on a full regimen of vaccinations, as recommended by the Advisory Committee for Immunization Practices (ACIP). The ACIP is a group of medical and public health experts that develops recommendations on how to use vaccines to control diseases in the U.S. For a complete schedule of all recommended vaccinations, go online to www.cdc.gov/vaccines/schedules.

"Infants are incredibly vulnerable to disease, with immature immune systems that are not equipped to ward off infection, so preventive care needs to be especially emphasized," explained Dr. Kowsik. "Simply put, infants don't have the immune systems to fight off infections the way healthy adults often can."

The same bacteria or virus that can feel like a minor illness to a healthy adult can result in severe illness requiring hospitalization in an infant, she went on to explain. Vaccines have been scientifically developed and formulated to prevent diseases that specifically affect infants.

It is also important that babies get the entire regimen of recommended vaccinations without skipping doses.

"The danger in skipping certain vaccinations is that the baby and those around him are made more susceptible to the disease," stated Dr. Kowsik. "The vaccines have been scientifically researched to prove their efficacy when the entire series is completed. We can't necessarily conclude that babies who have had half of a series will receive 'half' the immunity."

Improved protection and safety

Researchers continue to look for new and better ways to protect children from serious disease. In 2010, a new vaccine called "Prevnar 13" was approved and recommend for infants starting at two months of age until age 5. With this vaccine, young children build up immunity to 13 different types of pneumococcal bacteria, which cause pneumonia and some other diseases. The previous form of the vaccination only covered seven strains of the bacteria.

Although approved vaccines are continuously monitored for safety and efficacy, there remains some concern among the public about a link between vaccinations and autism in children.

"Many of these concerns were due to a paper published in 1998, which has now been formally retracted," reported Dr. Kowsik. "On further investigation, it was found that the physician who wrote the paper falsified his data, and no link has been found between autism and vaccines."

At the doctor's office

When parents bring their baby in for vaccinations, Dr. Kowsik recommends feeding them after the vaccinations to help calm them down and make them feel safe. Parents should stay calm and collected and can try distracting the infant during the shots to help her feel better.

"It's true that babies will cry during the vaccines, but parents are usually surprised at how quickly they calm down and get distracted by stickers and toys," said Dr. Kowsik.

After the immunization, the baby may be fussy, and there may be some pain in the area where the vaccine was given, which is usually the upper thigh for infants and the upper arm for older children. These symptoms should resolve in a few days. If the baby develops a fever over 100.3 degrees Fahrenheit after the vaccinations, Dr. Kowsik recommends giving a children's medication intended to reduce pain and fever.

"More serious reactions are very rare, but if difficulty breathing, hives, lips swelling or any other concerning symptoms occur, it's best to take the child in for an immediate medical evaluation," she recommended.

Communication helps

For parents, the number of visits for vaccinations, the variety of combined versus single vaccines and the number of diseases covered by the vaccinations can seem very intimidating.

"The best way for parents to stay on top of this is to communicate with their pediatrician," advises Dr. Kowsik. "Ask all the questions needed, and as often as needed. Be wary of information on the internet. Pediatricians can direct parents to the most reliable internet sites."

Learn more

Dr. Kowsik advises that the best Web sites about vaccinations are www.cdc.gov/vaccines (U.S. Centers for Disease Control), www.healthychildren.org (American Academy of Pediatrics) and www.who.int/en (World Health Organization-for a global perspective on vaccine-preventable diseases). To learn more about Washington Township Medical Foundation, go to www.mywtmf.com.