A lot of parents come to routine wellness visits with questions or concerns about vaccines and their potential side effects. Understanding vaccines and the diseases they protect against, as well as the side effects of vaccines, is essential for all parents.

Vaccines originated approximately 100 years ago with the discovery of the smallpox vaccine. Since then, ways to protect people against numerous diseases have emerged with significant fine-tuning of the process always occurring. Most parents, and even a significant number of physicians, have never seen these diseases due to the effectiveness of immunizations. However, these diseases continue to cause significant problems in the United States and around the world today.

A typical child in the United States will be vaccinated against at least 11 severe diseases by the time he reaches 2 years of age. The vaccines and the diseases they protect against are as follows.

  • Diphtheria is a bacteria that is spread through the air. The bacteria typically causes people who have ingested it to suffer fever, chills and a sore throat. A powerful toxin is sometimes produced that causes a thick membrane to form in the throat, making it extremely difficult to swallow or breathe. Diphtheria also can cause heart failure or paralysis. The death rate was as high as 20 percent during a 1920s outbreak. Although the disease is still seen in many parts of the world, immunizations have almost eradicated diphtheria in the United States with only one case being seen in 1998.
  • Tetanus is caused by a bacteria found in soil, dust or manure. It enters the body through a break in the skin caused by a cut, a burn, etc. Most infections involve a severe headache and muscle spasms, most commonly in the jaw, hence the term “lockjaw.” As with diphtheria, a toxin can be produced that causes powerful spasms. These may be strong enough to break a child’s bones. Tetanus kills 300,000 people worldwide every year. There are still nearly 50 cases a year of tetanus in the United States and three of 10 affected will die.
  • Pertussis, like diphtheria, is a bacteria that is spread through the air. The disease also is known as “whooping cough” because it causes a child to have a violent, repetitive cough that forces the child to inhale loudly with a whooping sound. Children with pertussis often vomit or pass out. The cough can last for weeks and is highly contagious. Infants less than 1 year of age are most severely affected, with more than half who contract the bacteria having to be hospitalized. Although immunizations have helped lower the incidents of pertussis, there are still 10 to 15 deaths per year from the disease in the United States.
  • Hemophilus Influenza B (HiB) is a bacteria carried in the nose or mouth. In the 1980s, HiB was the leading cause of bacterial meningitis in children under 5 years of age, causing nearly 20,000 cases and 600 deaths per year. Those who survived often were left with seizures, deafness or permanent brain damage. Since the introduction of the Hib vaccine in 1987, the incidence has decreased by 98 percent and now fewer than 10 cases per year are seen in the United States.
  • Polio was the most feared disease of the 20th century. Before the vaccine was introduced in 1955, 20,000 cases were reported in the United States. The virus is transmitted through the intestinal tract and can causes permanant paralysis. Polio has been eradicated from the Western Hemisphere but is still seen in numerous places around the world.
  • Measles are cuased by a virus that is spread through the air. It is one of the most infectious diseases in the world and still causes a million deaths worldwide, some of which are in the United States. The illness typically causes fever, upper respiratory symptoms, and a rash. Complications from the measles are frequent. For example, one in 20 people with the illness will get pneumonia. One in 1,000 will experience brain swelling or encephalitis, and nearly two in 1,000 will die. If worldwide immunization for measles stopped, it is estimated that 2.7 million deaths per year would occur.
  • Mumps is a virus transmitted by air as well. Before the vaccine, it was the major cause of deafness in children. Although usually a mild illness, it causes severe inflammation of the salivary glands, can cause encephalitis and can cause swelling of the testes in teen and adult males, which might lead to sterility.
  • Rubella (German measles) is a virus that causes fever and a rash in children. Adults often experience a headache, swollen glands and arthritis. Although symptoms are usually mild, rubella can cause severe birth defects in up to 90 percent of infants born to mothers infected during their first trimester. Rubella remains common throughout the world, except for in the United States, where sitings are rare.
  • Hepatitis B is a virus that is transmitted through blood and body fluids. The virus causes liver disease and might result in a chronic infection enabling people infected with the virus to infect others. Children most often acquire hepatitis B from an infected mother at birth but can be exposed to it through the blood, saliva or body fluids of other infected children or adults.
  • Varicella (chickenpox) is a highly contagious virus that is always present in the community. It causes fever and a very itchy rash. Although most cases are mild, serious complications are becoming more common. Severe skin infections, pneumonia and encephalitis are the most frequent complications. Four in 100,000 infants under 1 year of age and one in 100,000 children and adults will die from complications of the virus. The vaccine, or proof of having already had the disease, is now required for entry into kindergarten in Louisiana.
  • Streptococcus pneumonia (pneumococcus) is a bacteria that is now the leading cause of meningitis in children. It is also the leading cause of ear infections, sinus infections and pneumonia, particularly in children under 2 years of age. Although not required, this immunization is strongly recommended to help protect infants against severe infections fom the most common strains of this bacteria.

Side effects of such vaccines are usually mild. Most commonly, pain and redness at the injection site, low grade fever, and mild fussiness are seen for one to two days following vaccination. The MMR and varicella vaccines can have delayed side effects, with mild fever and a rash occurring one to two weeks after immunization. These are usually relieved by over-the-counter fever reducers, which should be dosed according to your child’s weight.

Reliable scientific evidence supports the fact that vaccines do not cause seizures, diabetes, neurological problems or autism. The American Academy of Pediatrics has an excellent website with links to the latest research on these and other vaccine topics that anyone can refer to for up to date information.

If you have any questions, contact the Baton Rouge Clinic at (225) 769-4044.

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