(StatePoint) As the school year begins, pediatricians' offices swell with children and conscientious parents making sure their kids get back-to-school vaccinations.
Getting your children vaccinated and making sure their shots are up-to-date will protect them for a lifetime, urge medical experts.
"Vaccinations are important public health measures that prevent the spread of deadly infectious diseases like meningitis, measles, and polio," says Judith S. Palfrey, MD, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). "Studies show modern vaccines are safe and effective."
This year alone, vaccines will prevent 33,000 deaths and 14 million infections.
In fact, viruses and bacteria that cause diseases like whooping cough, chickenpox and meningitis still exist in this country, and travelers can easily bring other diseases here. Without vaccinations, infections like measles could quickly spread, causing a nationwide outbreak.
Several states currently are experiencing an epidemic of whooping cough, a disease particularly dangerous for infants, and several children have died. And certain parts of the world have seen a resurgence of polio, which could infect unimmunized children who come into contact with travelers from those areas.
"Unimmunized children are at risk of getting sick and dying of preventable illnesses," Palfrey says. "For example, before the 1980s, there were about 20,000 cases a year of Hib disease, a leading cause of bacterial meningitis, which can be fatal. Now that we have a Hib vaccine, the number of cases a year in the United States has dropped to fewer than 100. However, the bacteria that causes Hib disease still exists, which is why children need the vaccine."
The best way to protect children from these diseases is by following the recommended immunization schedule, say the experts at the AAP. The immunization schedule is designed to work best with a child's immune system -- at certain ages and at specific times, when he or she is most vulnerable to serious complications from an infection. If a vaccine requires a second or third dose, they need to be given within a certain time frame or the vaccine will not fully protect your child.
And while most infections are far more harmful to infants, adolescents and adults need to make sure their records are up-to-date, as well. When an entire community is vaccinated, it protects those who are most vulnerable, including people with weakened immune systems and children who are too young to be vaccinated.
For example, infants are not fully protected against whooping cough (pertussis) until their third dose of vaccine at 6 months of age. That's why it's important that parents, older siblings and other family members get the vaccine to provide a "cocoon" of protection around the new baby.
The AAP also recommends every child between 6 months and 18 years gets an annual flu vaccine.
For more information about immunizations and what vaccines your child might need, see your pediatrician, or visit HealthyChildren.org.
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