Back to school: a term that can send fear down the backs of students, and joy to their parents. For many adults, August means shopping for new school supplies and perusing the remnants of Nordstrom’s Anniversary Sale. However, parents often fail to attend to a more pressing matter: procuring important annual vaccinations for their young students. Although the state of Texas mandates that children receive a certain set of immunizations prior to enrolling for, or attending school (you can find a list of required vaccinations here before school starts), these obligatory shots are often vague. Moreover, many parents fail to either have their children receive additional recommended vaccinations or even immunize themselves. Amber Hyde, MD, family medicine physician at Methodist Mansfield Medical Group, unpacks some of these ambiguities.
The importance of getting vaccinated is inherent to its function. Vaccines train our bodies to protect us against dangerous – and even fatal – diseases by mimicking an infection, thus provoking the immune system to produce antibodies, or white blood cells that attack antigens (parts of invading germs). When the imitation infection subsides, the body is left with a supply of white blood cells that will remember how to fight that bacteria or virus in the future. For this reason, getting immunized is the most effective and imperative defense against preventable, and frequently highly contagious, diseases.
As a general rule, children should receive vaccinations prior to starting elementary school. Dr. Hyde suggests getting necessary vaccines now, since some healthcare providers run out of supply or your doctor’s office may need clarification regarding a school’s requirements. For instance, requirements vary amongst students enrolling in grade schools and universities; college students are required to be immunized against meningitis, and Dr. Hyde recommends a secondary meningitis B vaccine. Although it is safe, and proven to have a positive causal relationship with vaccination rates, to have multiple vaccinations administered during one appointment, certain vaccines need to be separated to be most effective. For instance, pneumococcal vaccines are ideally separated by a span of one calendar year. Your physician should know the specifics.
Some immunizations create confusion because they are ambiguously named, and that can delay vaccinations. One is DTaP which covers tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (adults should receive TD, the corresponding booster for this vaccine, every ten years). MMR protects against measles, mumps, and rubella. The singular exception is the HPV vaccine, which prevents against human papilloma virus.
Some parents have worried that the HPV vaccination, which is administered in two doses over the course of six to twelve months, may encourage sexual activity either at a greater frequency or beginning at an earlier age. Dr. Hyde reminds these parents that the HPV vaccine literally prevents against a range of cancers, including anal, cervical, esophageal, and oral, all of which are on the rise.
Both children and adults should receive an annual flu shot this fall. Flu season generally lasts from October to April. Influenza causes more hospitalizations and fatalities amongst Americans than any other vaccine-preventable disease. While the vaccine has been criticized for not preventing the flu, it does lessen the severity of the virus if contracted. As more people get vaccinated, the rate at which a virus may circulate decreases; this is called herd immunity. The benefit of this is major outbreaks are avoided and those most vulnerable to complications are spared.
While many kids and adults fear the prick of the needle, they are our first defense against life-threatening preventable diseases. All vaccines are important and all vaccines are financially accessible (more information on federal and state programs to provide low-income or uninsured families with vital vaccinations can be found here).