Q & A: Why Is it Important to Vaccinate Infants and Children?

April 25, 2023 | by Jodi McCaffrey
Q & A: Why Is it Important to Vaccinate Infants and Children?

Petit-OrtunezRoutine childhood immunization among children born between 1994 and 2018 will prevent 419 million illnesses, 8 million hospitalizations and 936,000 early deaths over the course of their lifetimes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

National Infant Immunization Week is a yearly observance to shine a light on the importance of protecting children two years and younger from vaccine-preventable diseases. We sat down with Betsabe Petit Ortunez, M.D., a board-certified pediatrician with Pediatrix Primary + Urgent Care of Texas, to learn why vaccines are important, the risks associated with skipping vaccinations and what parents should do if their child’s immunizations are behind schedule.

Q: Why are vaccines important for infants and children?

A: Infants are exposed to various viruses and diseases during their first year of life. This stage is when they are most vulnerable and susceptible to illness. By vaccinating our children, we are protecting them against more than 14 vaccine-preventable diseases.

Q: How do vaccines work?

A: Vaccines are like trainers or teachers. Through vaccination, we introduce a small fragment of dead or live bacteria or virus. This triggers an immune reaction that desensitizes the child to that virus or disease. The vaccine teaches the immune system to recognize the virus or bacteria so we can build up our immunity against that disease. Although it takes only a tiny amount of active ingredients in each vaccine for the immune system to remember what to do when it sees the actual virus or bacteria, we may need more than one dose of a vaccine.

Q: Can a child get sick from a vaccine?

A: Generally, no; your child can’t get sick from a vaccine. This is because most vaccines are made with dead viruses or biologically engineered components that prevent the recipient from getting sick. This includes the seasonal flu vaccine. In contrast, the mumps, measles and rubella (MMR) vaccine contains live but weakened forms of the viruses, which may cause a child to get mild side effects. However, these side effects are far less severe than the viruses the vaccines prevent.

Q: Can vaccines cause autism?

A: Absolutely not. Several studies have found no link between vaccines and autism spectrum disorder. In a 1998 study, a former British physician claimed that the two were connected, and this misinformation went viral. However, when several groups of researchers tried to replicate the doctor’s research, they couldn’t. As a result, the article was removed from the journal in which it was originally published.

Children get several vaccines between ages 1 and 2. Coincidentally, this is around the same time that children may start to show the symptoms of autism. Although they happen around the same time, one does not cause the other. While it may seem like there are more cases of autism spectrum disorder than before, this is because the medical community — and parents — are better at recognizing the symptoms and diagnosing the condition.

Q: Should all infants and children follow the same vaccination schedule?

A: Generally speaking, all healthy children should follow the approved schedule developed by the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). The schedule is based on reviews of the most recent scientific data for each vaccine. This schedule is well-tested and proven to be safe for the large majority of infants and children. However, in some cases, such as a child with primary or secondary immunodeficiency, the physician may choose to avoid some live vaccines. In addition, if a child has a special condition such as sickle cell disease, doesn’t have a spleen or takes medication that weakens the immune system, he or she may need additional vaccines that a healthy child doesn’t need. Your pediatrician can discuss what approach is best.

Q: Is it safe to spread out immunizations to avoid “overloading” an infant?

A: Unless it’s recommended by your child’s doctor, spacing out vaccinations beyond the approved schedule is not recommended. Doing so puts children at risk by denying them the protection they need from disease. The recommended schedule is designed to work best with a child’s immune system at certain ages and at specific time intervals between doses. No research shows a child would be protected as well against diseases with a very different schedule. There also is no scientific reason why spreading out the shots would be safer.

Getting all the needed immunizations during one visit is less traumatic to a child than going back to the doctor several times to reach full immunization. If you are concerned about the pain your child may experience while getting their shots, we can make the experience more pleasant, such as administering vaccinations while the child is being breastfed or using topical anesthesia to numb the injection site.

Q: What could happen if an infant or child is not vaccinated?

A: Vaccines have been the greatest achievement in public health in the last century. Through vigilant vaccination, we were able to eradicate smallpox in the world in 1977 and have nearly eradicated polio. It’s important that we don’t reverse course on these achievements.

Vaccinating children doesn’t just protect the child; it also protects the rest of the community. When most people in the community have immunity to a disease, it’s less likely for that disease to spread. However, if many people in a community choose to follow a different schedule or skip certain vaccines, diseases can spread much more quickly. We saw this first-hand in 2019 when several communities experienced measles outbreaks because parents had chosen not to immunize their children from the disease. In most years, about 100 people in the United States get measles. However, in 2019, more than 1,200 measles cases were reported in this country. Most people who got the disease were not vaccinated.

Q: What should a parent do if their child is behind schedule?

A: Sometimes, life gets in the way of our plans. If your child is behind on vaccinations, perhaps due to the pandemic, the CDC has created a catch up schedule. Just call your child’s pediatrician, and they will work with you to make a plan to catch up.

As parents, the biggest acts of love we can perform for our children are to vaccinate and breastfeed them. If you have vaccine questions, don’t hesitate to ask your pediatrician! They know your child’s health history and can talk with you about specific vaccines recommended.