Advancements in vaccine development have helped keep children from getting many serious illnesses. As a result, today’s generations can avoid childhood bouts of chickenpox, measles, and other deadly illnesses, all because they’re vaccinated.
Those who can’t receive vaccines rely on herd immunity, which occurs when a large portion of a community (the herd) becomes immune to a disease. But the gains we’ve made swing in the balance because vaccination rates are falling.
The threshold for herd immunity varies depending on how easily an illness spreads. However, the goal is for around 95% of the population to be fully vaccinated. In the 2020-2021 school year, vaccine rates averaged 94% across the nation — and that fell even further to 93% in the 2021-2022 school year.
Public health experts, pediatricians, and other health care workers are prioritizing vaccine education in attempt to improve vaccine rates. Raising awareness for vaccines during World Immunization Week (April 24-30) every year helps push the needle in the right direction.
A Pediatrician Answers Top Questions
We caught up with Dr. Ann Jones, a Pediatrician with ThedaCare Physicians Pediatrics-Appleton, to learn what questions parents have about vaccines.
1. What’s the point of getting vaccines if they’re not 100% effective?
Vaccination helps prevent serious illness and death, even for some vaccines that aren’t as effective. For example, studies show that vaccinated children are less likely to need hospitalization or to die from the flu, even if they get sick.
We also think of it from a public health standpoint. Increased vaccination rates can reduce the spread of vaccine-preventable illness. This can help protect those who aren’t vaccinated, either by choice or because it’s not safe for them to receive vaccines.
2. Do babies and children really need COVID vaccines if they usually only get mild cases?
Children and babies don’t get as sick from COVID as adults do, so we consider them lower risk. But low risk doesn’t mean no risk.
Children can get very sick and die from COVID. Those who have had COVID can develop life-threatening multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, or MIS-C. They can also develop life-changing long COVID symptoms.
In addition, avoiding illness in a child can reduce the spread to more high-risk family members. It can also cut out the hassle of time off school, work, and other important events. The less COVID in the community, the better.
3. Is it possible for vaccines to make someone sick with the illness they’re supposed to prevent?
Some vaccines — like MMR, varicella, rotavirus, and the nasal flu vaccine — are “live vaccines.” It might sound like they can make you sick, but they’re attenuated. That means if you get sick from the vaccine, the virus is weaker than the “wild type.”
Getting sick from attenuated live vaccines is usually of most concern for individuals with serious underlying illnesses, like those undergoing chemotherapy or who have serious immune deficiencies. We usually avoid giving live vaccines to people who fall into this category.
4. Can my child’s immune system handle the recommended vaccination schedule or multiple vaccines at once?
Vaccines teach your body to make antibodies that protect you from illnesses. These antibodies can fight off illnesses if you’re exposed to them later on.
Our immune systems produce antibodies for countless germs every day. The number of antibody-producing elements in vaccines is minuscule compared to everyday exposures.
Over the past 24 years I’ve been a pediatrician, I’ve seen children get very sick or die from complications of several vaccine-preventable illnesses. On the other hand, I’ve never had a patient with a significant serious vaccine reaction, aside from two patients who had severe allergic reactions. This is possible with any medication.
Spacing out vaccines or separating them will require more frequent visits to the doctor for shots. Studies show that children experience a similar amount of stress whether they get one vaccine or several vaccines in the same visit. For this reason, having more “shot visits” at the doctor increases their stress, but does not protect them.
I fully vaccinated both of my children along the normal schedules. They’ve also gotten flu shots every year since they were born and are completely immunized against COVID. They’ve even had several international travel vaccines.
5. Why do kids need vaccines for eliminated diseases?
Just because a disease has been “eliminated” in the United States doesn’t mean it’s been eliminated worldwide. Many of the illnesses that vaccine programs eradicated decades ago in the U.S. are coming back. They’re only a plane flight away. As people here choose not to vaccinate their children, the risk increases for getting these illnesses and spreading them to other people who aren’t vaccinated.
6. Isn’t natural immunity better for diseases like chickenpox?
I would never take the chance of natural immunity for any life-threatening illness. Many adults had chickenpox — aka varicella — when they were growing up. Most people who get chickenpox are sick for about a week, but some get very ill.
In my career, I have cared for two children who died from chickenpox-related illness. It’s not common, but it does happen. And that’s exactly what we’re trying to prevent by vaccinating kids on time.
7. What happens if I choose not to vaccinate my child?
Parents have the right to choose not to vaccinate their children or to choose alternative vaccine schedules. However, some consequences can result.
Some pediatricians ask parents who choose not to vaccinate their children using the recommended schedule to sign a waiver. This states that they understand that this decision can put their child at higher risk for serious vaccine-preventable illness or death.
Schools usually allow under-vaccinated children to attend after their parent or guardian signs a waiver. However, they may not be allowed to attend school if there’s an outbreak of a vaccine-preventable illness.
There are laws governing vaccination rules for children who attend school or day care in Wisconsin. Students must show proof of vaccination status or obtain a waiver signed by a parent or guardian. All schools, child care centers, and other public health agencies must follow vaccine laws.
Despite all that, school district vaccine requirements in Wisconsin are less than the recommended vaccine schedule. ThedaCare, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend several vaccines that aren’t included on the schedule.
There’s momentum to include more recommended vaccines among those required for students in Wisconsin. The two-dose meningitis vaccine will be required beginning in the 2023-2024 school year.
When I encounter parents with concerns about vaccines, I try to have an understanding conversation and do not “kick the patient out” if they choose to not be vaccinated. However, I do bring up the topic at every visit and try to talk parents through the worries they may have.
“My take-home message to most families who are really questioning is that I just want them to make a good, educated decision,” Dr. Jones says. “While vaccines are not perfect and some children can have significant side effects to the vaccines themselves, the risk of severe vaccine reaction is exponentially lower than the risk of severe disease from these vaccine-preventable illnesses.”