National Immunization Awareness Month, as the name suggests, helps build awareness about the role vaccines play throughout a person’s life, from infant to elderly age groups. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), vaccines build immunity for children who have not been exposed to certain diseases.
We sat down with Sydney Kometani, M.D., pediatrician at Austin’s First Steps, part of the Mednax® family, to learn more about the importance of vaccines, who should receive them and when and the impact COVID-19 has had on immunization schedules in the United States.
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Vaccinations begin during infancy to protect babies from the countless germs they are continually exposed to through food, objects they put in their mouths and airborne microorganisms. While they start with relatively strong immune systems, they generally can’t fight crippling and sometimes deadly diseases.
A few diseases, such as smallpox, measles and mumps, have been eliminated or vastly reduced by vaccines. The CDC has identified 14 infectious diseases it believes could have been eliminated with proper vaccination in the United States but are still circulating.
Children should be vaccinated for these 14 infectious diseases during the first six years of their lives. However, childhood vaccination doesn’t stop at age 6. The CDC has created an immunization schedule it recommends for ages 18 and younger.
Behind on vaccinations?
When COVID-19 began spreading across the United States, many parents put vaccinations on hold, fearing they would expose themselves, their children and their families to the pandemic. However, now that the COVID-19 vaccine is widely available to everyone 12 years and older and mask mandates have been lifted in most parts of the country, it’s essential that children get caught up with their immunizations, especially with the start of a new school year.
“There are many advantages to getting kids back to school, such as being able to socialize and receive in-person learning. However, putting kids back in rooms with a lot of other children puts them at higher risk for contracting contagious illnesses and diseases. For kids who are behind on their immunizations, it’s critical for them to get caught up before they return to school. This will not only protect them, but it will also prevent them from contracting something, bringing it home to their families and then spreading it throughout their communities.”
Vaccines for expectant mothers
There are also vaccines to protect pregnant women and their developing babies. It is recommended that expectant mothers receive the flu shot and whooping cough vaccines during each pregnancy. According to the CDC, “Individuals who are pregnant are more likely to become severely ill with COVID-19, requiring hospitalization, intensive care or ventilation.” Pregnant women who are uncertain about taking the COVID-19 vaccine or other inoculations should visit with their health care physician.
“Pregnant mothers are at higher risk of getting sicker if they contract the flu or COVID-19,” said Dr. Kometani. “Vaccinations are important to protect them and their babies. Studies are finding COVID-19 antibodies in umbilical cord blood and breast milk, which offers protection to the infant.”
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine (SMFM), the two leading organizations representing specialists in obstetric care, recommend that all pregnant individuals, barring medical exemptions, be vaccinated against COVID-19.
According to Statista, as of last month, there have been nearly 35 million COVID-19 cases in the United States since the start of the pandemic. Of those, there have been more than 600,000 reported deaths.
In the absence of a medical contraindication, the CDC recommends that anyone 12 and older should get vaccinated, especially given the new Delta variant. According to the CDC, “Millions of people in the United States have received COVID-19 vaccines under the most intense safety monitoring in U.S. history.” It recommends those who are undecided about the COVID-19 vaccine conduct thorough research and understand the facts and myths about the vaccine.
Currently, the COVID-19 vaccines are free to everyone in the United States from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen. While the vaccines were initially authorized for adults, the Pfizer-BioTech vaccine is now deemed safe for adolescents as young as 12. In addition, vaccines for younger children may be available as early as fall.
Dr. Kometani shares insight on what we can do as a community to slow the spread of the disease.
“I think we should also focus on the benefits COVID-19 and other vaccines offer the greater community. Many people talk about trying to do something good, something right, paying it forward. Still, sometimes, with the idea of independence and free thought, we forget that our community needs us all to work together to create a safer environment for everybody. If we can get a good portion of our population to support this effort, herd immunity can be reached.”