Measles — an illness recognizable by a whole-body rash and more serious symptoms such as high fevers above 104 degrees — was contracted by nearly every child in the 1950s.
With the advent of a vaccine, practicing physicians today may never see a case of measles.
Health officials point to that as a major milestone in public health and are encouraging parents to continue to vaccinate their children against measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases.
"I think we've fallen into a false sense of security, in that we don't see these diseases anymore," said Deborah Buccino, MD, managing physician with MACONY Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine in Great Barrington, Mass. "But they really are deadly diseases."
National Infant Immunization Week, an annual observance of the importance of protecting very young children from vaccine preventable illnesses, runs from April 13 to 23. Health agencies, immunization advocates and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) partner to highlight the positive impact of vaccination on the lives of infants and children, and to call attention to immunization achievements.
"There is a social responsibility to vaccinate given the herd immunity issue," Buccino said.
"Herd immunity" is the idea that the vaccination of a significant portion of a population provides protection for individuals who have not developed immunity. Health professionals fear that, if too many children go unvaccinated, that herd immunity will be lost.
The CDC's childhood immunization schedule dictates that, by the time a child is two years old, they should have received vaccines that will protect against 14 vaccine-preventable diseases. For many of those vaccines, more than one dose is needed to build up immunity.
Among them are vaccines that protect against diseases that infants are more at risk for, health experts say. That includes the PCV vaccine, which protects against pneumococcal; DTaP for diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough) and tetanus; and MMR, for measles, mumps and rubella.
More information about vaccination schedules and other issues can be found on the CDC website: www.cdc.gov/vaccines/parents/index.html.
If your infant goes off schedule and misses vaccinations, the CDC says its not too late to catch up — the agency recommends working with your child's pediatrician to come up with a personalized schedule to get back on track.
"Studies have clearly shown vaccines are as effective in the combinations currently recommended as they are individually," Buccino said. "Furthermore, there is no greater risk for adverse events by doing the recommended schedule. Alternative schedules are promoted by single doctors as opposed to multiple experts from organizations such as the AAP, CDC and Academy of Family Practice. These doctors have no reason to recommend these vaccines except that they are good for one's health."
Buccino acknowledged some parents have reservations about vaccinating their very young children.
One study published in a prominent British medical journal in 1998 suggested the MMR vaccine could cause autism, leading to a decline in vaccination rates in the U.S. and Britain. The study was retracted in 2010 after medical panels probed the work by Dr. Andrew Wakefield, ultimately finding he and colleagues acted "dishonestly" and "irresponsibly" in conducting their research.
Buccino said there's still much mis-information on the internet about the issue. There's no scientific evidence that vaccinating infants "overloads" the immune system, she said. And the risk of a reaction from a vaccine is very, very small.
"I understand it can be scary to put these vaccines into our little children's body's but there really is no risk-free decision," Buccino said. "There is much more risk to withholding vaccines than the miniscule chance of a serious adverse outcome from them."
Buccino said she doesn't force parents to have their children vaccinated. Rather, she discusses the risks associated with not vaccinating.
"My goal as a pediatrician is to work with families as a team to hopefully educate them and help them make decisions they feel as comfortable as possible with," she said.
For more information about National Infant Immunization week, visit: www.cdc.gov/vaccines/events/niiw/index.html.
Contact Edward Damon at 413-770-6979