Many parents are wary when deciding whether to vaccinate their children. They want to do what’s best for their family and keep their children safe. Between mixed messages presented in the media and general health or safety concerns, they may be unsure whether immunization is the right thing to do for their child.
Vaccinations are crucial for the health of both our children and society. Vaccines are rigorously tested for safety before they are given to anyone, and the benefits greatly outweigh the rare possible risks.
Here are four reasons why childhood immunizations are so important.
1. Vaccines Safely Build Immunity
Whenever someone is infected with a disease they haven’t encountered before, their immune system produces antibodies to fight it. However, since this process takes time, they still get sick.
Fortunately, our immune systems “remember” antigens after a first encounter. The next time the disease enters the system, the body can fight it off more quickly and prevent the person from getting sick again. In other words, they now have immunity against this disease-causing antigen.
Vaccines build immunity in a person’s body by triggering their immune system to produce antibodies. The vaccines make it so the entire antibody-creation process can be done without having to actually get fully sick.
Vaccinations contain antigens that are either killed or weakened to the point where they won’t cause illness, but their presence still triggers the initial antibody response, meaning that the person develops immunity. Not only does this help protect the person from future exposures, but it can also stop the transmission of the illness from infecting other people.
While newborn babies are immune to many diseases due to antibodies from their mothers, this immunity goes away during the first year of life. Children’s bodies, especially those of young children, are often too weak to fight the antigens effectively on their own. Vaccinations allow children to develop the necessary immunity without having to first become sick from the disease.
Vaccines can have potential mild side effects of vaccines, such as a low-grade fever or pain at the site of administration. But they typically go away quickly on their own. These reactions tend to be far less severe than the effects of the disease itself. Overall, a shot of weakened antigens is significantly safer for a child than an unprotected initial exposure to the disease.
While many parents acknowledge the benefits of safely building immunity against certain diseases, they may be worried about the side effects of vaccines. One concern that has gained momentum in recent years is the relationship between childhood immunizations and autism, especially as diagnosis rates for autism spectrum disorders continue to increase. However, the overwhelming scientific consensus is that there is no link between vaccines (or vaccine ingredients) and autism.
2. Vaccines Protect our Communities
In addition to protecting the child, vaccinations also protect our communities at large. Vaccines are administered to people whose bodies can effectively fight off the weakened antigens and develop an immune response. By immunizing children who are old enough and healthy, families can protect those children or at-risk adults who aren’t.
There are also certain people who can’t receive vaccinations, and that makes them vulnerable to getting sick should they encounter the disease. Children who are under the recommended age for a specific vaccine aren’t protected against those antigens. (The CDC offers a list of vaccines for children, listed by the age at which it is safe to administer them.)
Additionally, people who are immunocompromised or have certain medical conditions can’t safely get vaccinations without jeopardizing their health. Finally, in rare instances, people may not respond to some vaccines or may have severe allergic reactions to them.
An unvaccinated child can more readily become infected with a disease and spread it to others. While the child may eventually be able to fight off the illness, other higher-risk populations may not be able to do the same. Immunizing children can help prevent the spread of disease in the first place, protecting these vulnerable populations and the community at large.
3. Vaccines Ensure Compliance with Schools
Some schools do not allow admissions if the child has not been vaccinated. Childcare facilities and school programs may require common vaccinations prior to the first day of school. Others may not outright require proof of immunization, but they may turn a child away if they have a vaccine-preventable illness.
These types of policies prevent the spread of disease to other children as well as staff, some of whom may be high-risk or may interact with others who are high-risk. If children are unable to attend school, they may miss out on important academic and social development opportunities.
Parents who are forced to keep sick children home, whether on a temporary or permanent basis, will also have to stay home or otherwise arrange optional childcare. Professional childcare providers or agencies may also have certain policies about vaccine-preventable diseases. This can lead to lost time at work and increased medical bills for parents, as well as potential prolonged disability for infected children.
Vaccinations are typically covered by insurance, and programs are in place for low-income families to make them more affordable and accessible. Immunization is a good investment that keeps more children in school while saving families time and money.
4. Vaccines Protect Future Generations
Immunization helps to protect future generations from diseases of the past (and present). Vaccines can reduce and often even eliminate many life-threatening illnesses.
Several diseases that were common in the United States and abroad just a few generations ago — including measles, tetanus, and polio — can now be prevented by vaccination. The rate of infection has decreased dramatically due to childhood immunizations, and for viruses that are linked with birth defects, fewer pregnant women are passing them on to their newborns.
Additionally, as a disease is eradicated, so too is the need for its corresponding vaccine. For example, because the smallpox vaccination successfully eliminated the disease worldwide, people no longer need to receive smallpox shots except in select situations.
It’s possible that if parents continue to vaccinate their children, the diseases of today won’t have to be a part of the future.