by Janet Craig, RN, MS, PNP
Clinical Nurse Specialist
Immunizations help prevent many common diseases. These include, but are not limited to: polio, measles, diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough), rubella (German measles), mumps, tetanus, rotavirus, hepatitis A and hepatitis B.
Many people think it’s better to get the disease naturally rather than be immunized. However, preventing a disease is better than trying to treat it. Why is this? First of all, getting sick is no fun, so why get sick if you can avoid it? How one responds to an illness is quite variable from person to person and cannot be predicted. Prior to the development of immunizations, children died from these “common” illnesses. Even now, many infants who contract pertussis can end up in an intensive care unit on a mechanical ventilator due to breathing problems. Some of these illnesses can leave residual defects that last a lifetime; for example polio can result in varying degrees of muscle weakness or paralysis.
Three Types of Benefits
There are three kinds of benefits to immunizations: personal, community, and future prevention.
- Personal benefits include protection from potentially serious diseases, thus avoiding suffering from the actual disease. If you choose not to immunize your child, you are gambling that your child will not be exposed to disease and/or your child will not get seriously ill. Also, the impact can be costly with doctor’s visits, potential hospitalization, and lost days from work carrying for an ill child (or children).
- Community benefits include “herd immunity.” This means that immunized children cannot get a disease thus preventing the spread of disease to others. And, if a sick child comes into contact with an immunized child, the disease will not spread. Infants are too young for certain immunizations and some children or members of the community cannot get immunizations for various reasons. (These reasons include–but are not limited to–select medications, organ transplantation, HIV, and certain cancers.) There are also people who have an abnormal immune system and they cannot fight off disease. If they contracted one of these diseases, they would become severely ill or possibly die. Therefore immunized children are helping to protect not only themselves, but their whole community. Unfortunately those who do not get their children immunized present an increased risk to the community.
- Future Prevention benefits include decreasing the incidence of disease and preventing diseases from coming back. One thing we know for sure is that once immunizations are stopped, the diseases they prevent return. Even a few cases can trigger a major outbreak.
How Immunizations Work
The immune system helps protect the body from disease or anything else that enters the body that should not be there (other than food). When something foreign enters the body, the immune system recognizes the foreign substance (antigen) as “non-self” (viruses and bacteria). The body develops antibodies against these antigens, thus fighting disease. Afterward, the body will “remember” the foreign antigen; so if your child is exposed to it again their immune system will rapidly produce more antibodies and your child will not get ill. What a great system!
There’s only one problem … if your child is not immunized, the first time he or she is exposed to a new antigen, your child will get sick. That’s because your child’s body needs time to produce antibodies. But, this can be avoided with immunizations! That’s because they contain the same antigens that cause disease. Immunizations are weakened to the point that they don’t cause disease, but they are strong enough to stimulate the body to produce antibodies (just as if your child was exposed to disease). Therefore your child gets protection without getting sick! What could be better than that?
Many parents have lots of concerns about immunizations. That is okay and you should chat with your pediatrician or primary care provider about these concerns.
Here are some common misconceptions about vaccines:
- Better hygiene and sanitation will make diseases disappear. Well … yes and no. There is no doubt improved hygiene and sanitation has done a lot to improve health. Nonetheless, many infectious diseases spread no matter how meticulous we are. And these diseases will and do come back when people stop getting immunized.
- It is better to obtain immunity “naturally” through disease than immunizations. This is false. Immunizations interact with the body the same way natural disease does. And immunizations do not cause disease, thus preventing the repercussions of disease and the disease won’t be given to other people.
- Immunizations have severe side effects or can be fatal. This is very very rare. The most common side effects are a sore arm or a low temperature. If immunizations are not given, many more people will be seriously injured from the side effects of the preventable disease. For example: polio can cause paralysis; measles can cause a brain infection (encephalopathy) and blindness; tetanus causes painful muscle spasms with inability to breathe normally; diphtheria can cause obstruction of the airway.
- Immunizations cause autism. This has been proven to be false. There is no evidence that immunizations, more specifically Measles/Mumps/Rubella (MMR) immunizations, cause autism. The Institute of Medicine and the American Academy of Pediatrics have done extensive investigations of this claim and no link has been found between MMR and autism.
- Giving more than one immunization at a time will increase the risk of side effects. This is false. This has been studied closely and there is no evidence to support this fear. Everyday your child is exposed to hundreds of foreign substances that can trigger an immune response. Combined immunizations mean fewer shots. And getting immunizations all at once mean fewer visits to the doctor or clinic, saving time and money.
So What Should I Do?
Plan on getting your child immunized and ensure their immunizations are up-to-date. Some immunizations require a booster (schedules are referenced below). If you have any concerns, speak with your pediatrician or primary care provider, particularly if you feel your child may have any contraindications to immunizations or may require special precautions. Your pediatrician can explore these concerns with you. Ensure you and your pediatrician keep a current record of all immunizations. Utah utilizes the Utah Statewide Immunization Information System (USIIS). This is a helpful secure, confidential, electronic immunization information system that will ensure an up-to-date record. To learn more visit USIIS.org.
Immunizations not only protect your child and family, they help protect your community and the world at large. Remember, you can pick up diseases at home and from afar. So don’t let children get sick if you don’t have to, and don’t let them pass on diseases to others.
Recommended Immunization Schedule from the AAP
Mexico/USA Binational Resource Tool from the CDC
From the Centers for Disease Control (CDC):
Vaccines and Preventable Disease
List of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases
Why are Childhood Vaccines So Important?
Vaccine Safety and Adverse Events
Janet graduated from nursing school in 1976 and completed her Master’s of Science in Nursing at the University of California San Francisco in 1990. She went on to complete her Pediatric Nurse Practitioner course work at UCSF in 1992. She has worked as a PICU Nurse, Educator, PICU Clinical Nurse Specialist, and as a Pediatric Cardiology and Pediatric Cardiothoracic Surgery Nurse Practitioner. She is currently one of the Pediatric Acute Care Clinical Nurse Specialists at Primary Children’s Hospital. She enjoys hiking, skiing, gardening, camping/backpacking and traveling.