NEW HAVEN, Conn. (WTNH) — In the midst of a pandemic, we regularly hear about the need for a COVID-19 vaccine. This, coupled with an ongoing debate in this country about whether to vaccinate children, may leave some confused about what vaccines do and why they are so important.

Vaccines keep us healthy and teach the immune system how to fight illnesses that can cause significant illness or death, says Dr. Cliff O’Callahan, pediatric faculty and director of nurseries for Middlesex Health. Dr. O’Callahan likens vaccines to a vitamin or other supplement that someone takes to boost their body’s defense system—except they are better. Vaccines boost a particular part of the body’s defense system in very specific and powerful ways that are scientifically proven to be more beneficial than any vitamin or supplement, he says.

Dr. O’Callahan, who has practiced medicine around the world, says that most young parents have not experienced what life was like when people were paralyzed by polio or got encephalitis after having the measles. This sometimes causes them to question the value of vaccines. They never saw someone hospitalized for having the chickenpox or continuously coughing for two to three months because of the whooping cough. Due in large part to vaccinations, the spread of these diseases is eradicated, or very limited, and that has changed our global health system.

“Vaccines protect us, and they undoubtedly transform our world,” Dr. O’Callahan says. “They continue to be vital even in an age when we have significantly improved hygiene and nutrition, and it’s important to get the vaccines recommended by your doctor.”

Dr. O’Callahan says the goal is to administer vaccines before a person would likely encounter certain diseases and when the body is capable of creating that protection. For example, young children receive a series of vaccines and then receive a few additional doses to increase the likelihood that their immune system will fight off infancy diseases, such as pneumonia and meningitis. Adolescents receive the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine at ages 11 or 12—well before they start to have sex—because once they have a few partners their likelihood of contracting the virus increases, as does their risk of cervix, anus or throat cancers. (The fastest growing type of cancer in the United States among men is cancer of the larynx, or throat, from HPV.)

Parents should discuss what vaccinations their children need, and when they need them, with their pediatrician or family practice doctor. To attend school, children must be up-to-date on the vaccinations required by the state of Connecticut, and Dr. O’Callahan says medical offices are working hard to catch up after a slow spring due to the pandemic. The coverage rate for typical vaccines fell over the past few months, which is risky for the children who did not receive them, and for unimmunized children who depend on good herd immunity to protect them.

Some families may not want to vaccinate, or may want an alternate vaccine schedule, and Dr. O’Callahan says Middlesex Health works with them, engaging them in a very open and frank discussion about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines from both scientific and personal and parental points of view.

“Our belief is that if we can do a good job caring for those children and their families, and listening respectfully and educating thoughtfully, we eventually might be able to convince some of them to either partially or fully immunize their children,” he says.

At this time, all staff and patients are expected to wear face masks at a Middlesex Health facility due to COVID-19. If a child does not receive all their recommended vaccines and has a fever or a suspicious rash or cough, extra precautions must be taken and the medical office front desk or the Emergency Department must be informed of the situation. Children who do not receive their vaccinations have very different risks and could potentially spread otherwise preventable illnesses to others.

Children who are not immunized have a higher risk of getting and spreading those preventable diseases. However, they do get these diseases more rarely today compared to 20 or more years ago, because more than 90 percent of other children are vaccinated, creating a protective herd immunity around these vulnerable unprotected youth.

Dr. O’Callahan urges families who are considering visiting Europe when travel restrictions are lifted to be cautious because of the tremendous surge of measles across the continent—from Ireland to Romania. In 2018, there were 83,540 measles cases and 74 related deaths. That rate has slowed in the last year, but France, Belgium, Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Croatia, and Slovenia are still hot spots struggling with large outbreaks.

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