In the early 20th century, infectious childhood diseases had a devastating impact on the U.S. population. The 1920s saw over 10,000 people die of diphtheria each year. And in the 1940s and ‘50s, tens of thousands of children were crippled or killed by polio. Thanks to the development of vaccines, there has been a dramatic decline in these and other infectious childhood diseases in the U.S. But the illnesses still exist, making immunization as important as ever for protecting young children.
Vaccines are particularly important for children under the age of 5 because they’re more susceptible to disease. Their developing immune systems haven’t built up the necessary infection-fighting defenses. Vaccines are used to stimulate the body into building these defenses. Created from the germs that cause the disease, a vaccine fools the body into thinking it is under attack. The body reacts by producing antibodies to fight off the illness. These antibodies stay in the body and protect the child if he or she is ever exposed to the illness.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends immunization against 10 diseases. While the immunization schedule may vary for each child, vaccination against the following diseases is generally recommended by age 2 and can be completed in five visits to a doctor or clinic:
—Polio is a virus that can lead to permanent physical disability or death. Three vaccinations against polio are given, usually starting at the age of 2 months.
—Measles is a potentially fatal and highly contagious respiratory disease. Mumps can lead to meningitis and permanent hearing loss. Rubella, or German measles, can cause severe birth defects if acquired by pregnant women. One vaccination against measles/mumps/rubella is usually administered when a child is 12-15 months old.
—Haemophilus Influenzae Type b (Hib) causes bacterial meningitis, which may lead to deafness, seizures, mental retardation or death. At 2 months, a baby receives the first of four vaccinations against Hib.
—Tetanus, or lockjaw, is a nerve disease that can cause muscle spasms and may require hospitalization.
—Pertussis, or whooping cough, can result in prolonged coughing and vomiting spells and can cause permanent harm in infants.
—Diphtheria is a severe infection of the throat that can cause heart failure or paralysis if left untreated. Infants usually receive the first of four vaccinations against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis at age 2 two months.
—Hepatitis B infects the liver and may cause long-term problems such as cirrhosis (liver disease) or liver cancer. The first of three vaccinations against Hepatitis B may be given at birth.
—Varicella, or chicken pox, is a highly contagious viral infection that causes a skin rash and occasionally leads to more serious complications. One vaccination against chicken pox is usually given in the child’s first two years.
Several of the vaccinations require booster shots after the age of 2 to be completely effective. Because a child needs several doses of each vaccine to be fully protected, it is important to follow the schedule your doctor establishes. Fortunately, even if your child has fallen behind schedule or has never been vaccinated, it is never too late to immunize. Call your physician to determine when your child should begin immunization or to learn more about the process.
DR. NARULA is Chairman of Pediatrics at New York Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn.