The importance of back-to-school immunizations

contributing columnistAugust 2, 2014 

In Kentucky, all children are required to be caught up on their vaccinations in order to enroll in school each year, but many parents may wonder exactly what these vaccinations are and how important they can be to our society.

According to Kentucky state law, the current required vaccinations that most parents are aware of protect against common diseases like whooping cough, tetanus, polio, hepatitis, measles, mumps, chicken box and rubella.

In the last 20 years, there have been newer vaccinations that protect children against meningitis, a potentially deadly bacterial infection of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord. Pneumococcal, Haemophilus and meningococcal vaccines protect children from the three most common types of bacterial meningitis.

Children entering the sixth grade also now receive a whooping cough booster in the form of Tdap. Prior to this vaccine, children would get a booster tetanus shot (Td), but now the Tdap protects against both tetanus and pertussis, which is otherwise known as whooping cough.

Although not required by schools in Kentucky, the influenza vaccine is very important. Every child older than six months of age should receive with the flu vaccine each year. The flu vaccine differs year to year because scientists and researchers look at what strain of the flu is expected to be the most prevalent. From their research, they create a specific influenza vaccine for that year.

Additionally, the Hep A vaccine and HPV vaccine are two immunizations that are not required by schools, but recommended by the Advisory Committee of Immunization Practices.

Children are around each other all day and often in close quarters, which allows infections to be spread easily in the classroom setting. It's normal for a child to catch the common cold, but when a serious infection, such as whooping cough, enters the school it's able to spread rapidly and create a significant public health burden in addition to potentially severe complications.

While there are many diseases — such as small pox and polio — that are no longer seen in the United States due to the success of immunization programs, there is still an alarming rate of outbreaks in the United States of measles, mumps and whopping cough. Most of these diseases do not originate here. They are brought in to the United States by travel, and often spread in communities where immunization rates are low.

Sometimes, however, not every child can be vaccinated. There may be medical reasons, such as a previous severe reaction or allergy to a vaccine or an immunosuppressive illness, that prevents a child from being immunized. For parents who have chosen not to vaccinate their children, there is also a religious exception to immunization, but no personal exception in the state of Kentucky.

As health care providers, our goal is to have a 100 percent vaccination rate. Children who cannot be vaccinated are dependent upon the immunized children around them to keep vaccine-preventable disease at bay. For example, measles is highly infectious. If a susceptible child is in a waiting room after a person with measles, even hours before, there is an excellent chance that child will become infected with the measles virus.

Children should begin getting vaccinated starting as a newborn, and begin a routine schedule with their pediatrician. If children fall behind their vaccination schedule for whatever reason, there is a way to catch up to be fully vaccinated. Talk to your physician about immunizations and what vaccines your child should receive before going back to school.

Dr. Robert Rettie is with KentuckyOne Health Pediatric Associates.

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