Doctor Explains Why Immunizations Are So Critical, Even During Pandemic
by TERESA SCHIFFER
As we enter flu season while in the midst of a raging pandemic, the topic of vaccinations is on a lot of people’s minds. You may be wondering if you should get a flu shot this year, if a coronavirus vaccine will be safe, and if you should avoid taking your children to the pediatrician for regularly scheduled vaccinations. As these important topics surface, we sought the advice of a medical expert. Dr. Nicole Hinds, a pediatrician with Lakeland Regional Health, took the time to explain to us why maintaining proper vaccination schedules for children is so important.
Nationally, doctors report that they are seeing a decline in the numbers of children coming in for their vaccinations. In March, April, and May, healthcare professionals first noted the marked decline in the number of children receiving vaccinations. This is a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has had parents concerned about the safety of visiting doctors’ offices right now. While the concern is understandable, the resulting decline in vaccination numbers troubles health officials.
School-age children should have vaccinations for hepatitis B, hepatitis A, DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis), polio, pneumococcal, and Haemophilus influenzae type b. These vaccinations are generally required for school admission. Infants often also receive the rotavirus vaccine because they are at greater risk of serious complications if they contract that illness.
Parents are also encouraged to have preteens receive the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine. This protects against the common sexually transmitted infection, HPV, which can lead to certain cancers later in life. Some parents have voiced concern that having this vaccine administered to their preteen may promote premature sexual activity. The HPV vaccine is given at age 11 because research shows that preteens produce more antibodies from receiving this shot.
There has been an increasing number of parents refusing to vaccinate their children in recent years despite the proven value of vaccinations, but they are still a small minority.
“For the most part, parents generally do vaccinate their kids,” Dr. Hinds says. “We only see about 3 percent who are on the fence or who are definitely not wanting to vaccinate their kids.”
Hinds explains why a decline in vaccinations among children is so troubling. “Vaccines function to prevent disease, so if they’re not being vaccinated, then you’re going to have the reemergence of vaccine-preventable illnesses. So things like measles, which we’ve seen already. Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen pockets throughout the U.S. where there have been outbreaks of measles. You’re going to see things like polio coming back, diphtheria, tetanus, things that we haven’t seen in a long time.”
Doctors say adhering to the immunization schedule is crucial for maximum safety and efficacy. The timetable for vaccinations has been developed by committees and experts over several generations to determine what schedule works best to protect individuals and the public from major health threats.
Many factors have been considered in establishing the recommended immunization schedule, including at what age a disease is most likely to occur, at what age a vaccination is most efficacious, and what effects a vaccination is likely to have on a patient at various ages. The result is a schedule that delivers vaccines at ages when they will stimulate the most potent immune response. Any deviation from the recommended schedule has the potential to cause harm to the child. Therefore, doctors urge parents to stick to the immunization schedule that has been approved by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
It is also important that parents understand that vaccines are generally safe. As with any type of medical treatment, there are risks involved, but the value of preventing diseases that can cause widespread illness and death is widely considered to outweigh the small percentage of negative outcomes that can result from the vaccinations themselves. The most common side effects of vaccinations are fever and soreness at the injection site. Young children are sometimes irritable after receiving a vaccination. “Vaccines are safe, and the risks are very rare,” Hinds assures us.
Vaccines are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) until they have gone through several clinical trials that usually involve 10,000 or more human subjects. This rigid testing ensures that the vaccines are safe for the general public before they are released.
Children may not be allowed to enter school without having received the appropriate vaccinations, although parents can apply for a religious exemption to this requirement. However, even children who are homeschooled or who participate in online education need to adhere to the recommended schedule.
Children aren’t the only ones who need to stay on their toes. Hinds says everyone needs to get a flu shot this year. Because the symptoms of COVID-19 and the flu are so similar, a flu vaccination helps reduce confusion over what particular illness a patient is suffering from if they do develop symptoms.