The theme for National Immunization Week, April 19-26, this year is "Love them. Protect them. Immunize them." The observance emphasizes immunizing infants against 14 vaccine-preventable diseases by the age of 2.
Most children are born with some immunity. While still in the mother's body, disease-fighting antibodies pass through the placenta from the mother. And if the baby is breastfed, they get additional benefits from antibodies in breast milk. But in both instances, the immunity is only temporary.
In times past, millions of children worldwide died or were disabled by diseases they had no resistance to. Epidemics were not uncommon among people of all ages, but children were especially vulnerable. In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin talks of his deep and bitter regret that he didn't get all of his sons inoculated against small pox. Smallpox killed his 4-year-old son in 1736.
Vaccination is an artificial way of creating natural resistance to certain diseases. The process uses relatively harmless substances called antigens that come from or are similar to the microorganisms that cause the diseases.
These microorganisms can be viruses, such as measles, or bacteria, such as pneumonia. Vaccines made from these microorganisms stimulate the body's immune system into reacting as if there were a real infection. The immune system will then fight off this infection, even "remembering" the organism.
Some parents are concerned about complications or that their children may develop the targeted illness. While it is true that some vaccines have some side effects, the likelihood is small. Not immunizing a child exposes them to far greater risks.
In the United States, vaccine-preventable childhood diseases are at record or near record lows. But that does not mean these diseases have disappeared. Many of the viruses and bacteria that cause them are still circulating here or are just a plane ride away.
It is true that a single child's chance of catching a disease is low if everyone else is immunized, but if one person skips vaccines chances are other people are thinking the same thing. And each child who is not immunized gives these highly contagious diseases the opportunity to spread. Approximately one million kids in the U.S. are not fully immunized by age 2 and we have seen resurgence of whooping cough (pertussis) in recent years. In 2006, there were over 15,000 cases of whooping cough reported nationally.
Last August, an infected 12-year-old boy from Japan brought measles to Pennsylvania when he came to the U.S. to participate in a baseball tournament. Among those infected were other players, a fellow passenger and an airport worker. Recent cases in the United States have been in California, New York, Milwaukee and Wisconsin, while larger outbreaks have occurred in Austria, Africa and Japan. Immunization against measles is not required in many countries.
Health Department activities for the week:
Bryan County. Children who sign in for immunizations will receive coloring sheets and crayons.
Liberty County. The department will provide goodie bags and quiz sheets to all children getting immunizations. Children who fill in and return the quiz will be eligible to participate in drawings for two age appropriate gift baskets. Other treats were available at a health fair Saturday at the Hinesville First Seventh Day Adventist Church. For more information about immunizations, call 876-2173 ext. 202, 203 or 205.
Long County. Kids Day here was April 10, during school spring break with immunization materials, games, face painting and health and safety booths. More than 115 children attended. Coloring sheets will also be distributed to children who come in for immunizations this week.
Ratcliffe works for the Coastal Health District.