The Medical Minute: National Infant Immunization Week

April 27, 2005

By John Messmer
Penn State Family and Community Medicine
Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center
Penn State College of Medicine

Childhood and infant diseases are not what they used to be, and that is very good news. Fifty years ago, the first polio vaccine was developed. By 1979, polio had been eliminated in the United States due to widespread immunization. Before 1963, almost everyone developed measles. About 20 percent of infected people required hospitalization and there were an average of 450 deaths per year. Measles cases now are less than 1 percent of the incidence prior to measles vaccine.

The goal of national infant immunization policy is to have all children immunized by age 2 against 11 diseases: tetanus (lockjaw), diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough), polio, measles, rubella (German measles), mumps, hepatitis B, pneumococcal diseases (pneumonia, meningitis), Haemophilus influenza (another type of meningitis) and chickenpox. Some of these require up to four doses to achieve protective blood levels. That sounds like a lot of shots, but manufacturers have developed ways to combine many of them to reduce the number of injections needed.

Parents wanting the best for their children may be intimidated by news reports of alleged illness and injury caused by vaccines. Serious side effects are exceedingly rare -- so rare that the danger of withholding a vaccine is greater than the potential reaction. Newer vaccines have significantly reduced many of the problems seen with older versions. Although vaccines continue to appear very safe, the Centers for Disease Control, the Institute of Medicine and other organizations continue to monitor for safety issues.

To support this effort, the U.S. government maintains a Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS) to tabulate any potential adverse effect of vaccination. When a person has any reaction after a vaccination, it can be reported even if it's not clear that the vaccine caused it. Reports are monitored for trends so more detailed analysis can be undertaken.

Why not avoid the risk and let everyone else get vaccinated? If these diseases are so well controlled, why put a child through it? The reason is that no vaccine is 100 percent effective. If everyone is vaccinated, the combined immunity of the population prevents illness even though everyone's immunity is less than total. The more people not immunized, the greater the chance an infection will develop and spread through the population.

What about the cost? True, some vaccines are expensive. Fortunately, insurance plans almost always cover them, including government-sponsored plans such as Medicaid. For those without insurance and who are not eligible for Medicaid, there is the Vaccines for Children (VFC) program. Just about anywhere in the United States, children can receive the recommended vaccines, often completely free. Some states allow health-care providers to charge an administration fee up to $15 per immunization, but even that fee may be covered by the program. So, there really is no excuse for any child not to be fully immunized by age 2.

Vaccination is an act of love. Protect children by having them vaccinated. For more information on National Infant Immunization Week and related vaccine information, go to online.

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Last Updated March 19, 2009