Junkfood Science: Please keep your babies safe — new vaccine information for parents

January 25, 2009

Please keep your babies safe — new vaccine information for parents

If only it was possible to help every new parent understand and trust doctors on this one.

For those of us healthcare professionals who were practicing as recently as the 1970s and early 1980s, the latest news from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) went right through our hearts. The CDC just reported that a 7-month old infant died, and another four became seriously ill from Haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib) last year in Minnesota (which tracks illnesses more closely than many states).

The baby had not received any of his Hib immunizations, nor had two of the other children. The remaining two had only received two of their primary Hib series and none had had their 1-year booster shot. The CDC report, which was published in the January 23 issue of MMMR—Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, also found that fewer than half of the 7-month olds (46.5%) in the state had received their Hib series, a significant drop. That means we could be losing the herd immunity protection — that comes when high numbers are immunized to help protect others whose immune systems make them more vulnerable to getting sick, even when vaccinated, or protect babies too young to have yet received the full immunization series. And, in fact, one of the afflicted children was especially defenseless: a 3-year old who had an immunodeficiency.

With considerable relief, we thought Hib had been pretty much eradicated here, thanks to the Hib vaccine that became available in 1987, and most children were routinely getting the vaccine by the early 1990s. [Click on timeline image to enlarge.] Before then, about one in every 200 babies and children under age five came down with invasive Hib infections and it seemed like we cared for a child terribly sick with meningitis or pneumonia nearly every week.

By around 1994, Hib had become so rare — the CDC has found fewer than ten Hib-related deaths a year since then — that we didn’t have to worry about it much anymore. Neither did parents. And that’s a very good thing because, as Dr. Lance Chilton, M.D., professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico and co-chair of the Clinical Prevention Initiative Immunization group, explained, back in the 70s, about one in every 20 of those sick children died, and one in five was left with severe disability. We don't want to go back to those days.

Today, most younger doctors and nurses have never even seen a case of Hib and few parents have watched babies get sick or die from Hib. So, Hib might not seem a big deal. We can only hope that we can reach young parents and help them understand why it is a big deal and why it is important to get their babies vaccinated.

It might have been tempting to disregard these cases in Minnesota as possibly as statistical fluke — except for another troubling finding in the CDC report. The children who hadn’t been vaccinated weren’t because of a vaccine shortage, but because the parents or guardians had refused to have their children vaccinated.

There are so many claims out there trying to scare parents about vaccines. I was going to address some of them, but there isn’t any science to address. They are not grounded in any good science. “Vaccines are among the most tested drugs we have,” said Dr. Chilton. Nothing is risk-free in life, but the risks of not vaccinating our babies are so much greater.

The Hib vaccination series begins at a baby’s 2 month check-up. Please don’t worry that they’re too little for a shot — it hurts a lot less than getting sick with Hib. One mother, and a registered nurse, wrote about how she’d procrastinated getting her daughter immunized until it became too late. Her daughter got sick with Hib, which caused epiglottitis (the airway quickly swells shut), a scary thing you only need to see once to understand the value of vaccines. Sometime, we can’t even get a breathing tube in, but her little girl was lucky.

Another news story this week brought home the devastating reality of Hib. Reporting from the Pediatric Association of Nigeria Conference, Drs. Adegoke Falade and Dr. Kikelomo Osinusi described a tragic situation they have been facing every day in their practices — a reality that doctors and parents here would find unimaginable. While Nigeria is the one of the wealthiest countries on the African continent, it has one of the highest child mortality rates.

One out of every five Nigerian children dies before reaching their fifth birthday.

The disease that is responsible for the most deaths among Nigeria’s youngest children — killing more than 200,000 children a year — is pneumonia. Half of those deaths are due to Hib and pneumococcus. The greatest challenge these doctors face in working to improve child health there is trying to get Hib vaccines to children.

Googling for health information is increasingly becoming a tangled web of junk for parents to try and sort through. It is understandable why it’s hard to know what to trust or how to weigh the risks and benefits. Admittedly, there is also a lot of unsupportable preventive public health stuff out there, but basic childhood immunizations are not among them. Below, are some good sources of information, along with the vaccinations that are recommended by the CDC.

Please protect your babies.


HibDisease.com — information and research for parents, medical professionals and media from the National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners

Information on Hib and other vaccinated diseases at Every Child by Two

CDC Hib Vaccine: What you need to know

CDC recommended immunizations for children

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