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The Life-Saving Power of Routine Childhood Vaccinations

A mother holds her baby daughter on her lap while talking to a doctor.

Infants are a handful to take care of. Meeting their ever-changing needs and keeping them healthy as they grow can be challenging, and a parent’s or caregiver’s to-do list may feel endless.

As a licensed pediatrician, there is one to-do that I really encourage people to prioritize: Making sure infants get all of their recommended immunizations. It’s an important way to keep them healthy, and also limits the spread of diseases.

It isn’t an understatement to say that immunization (vaccination) is one of the biggest health achievements of the last century. Prior to vaccinations, many diseases often resulted in serious complications or even death. Vaccines eliminated or drastically reduced many life-threatening diseases.

Routine Infant Immunizations

The body’s immune system helps fight infection. Most adults have well-developed immune systems, but infants do not. A minor illness for an adult could potentially be serious or even fatal for an infant. Vaccines help boost an infant’s immune system against certain viruses that could create lifelong complications. Delaying vaccinations can put babies at risk when they are most vulnerable.  

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the routine immunization schedule is “based on how your child’s immune system responds to vaccines at various ages, and how likely your baby is to be exposed to a particular disease. This ensures your little one is protected from potentially serious diseases at exactly the right time.”

These are some of the vaccinations that have made a big difference in the lives of children over the past few decades:

  • Hepatitis B. Hepatitis B is a disease caused by a virus. The virus can damage the liver and lead to inflammation and scarring of the liver (known as cirrhosis) or even cancer. Infants and children younger than five years of age are at particular risk because the younger you are when you get hepatitis B, the higher the risk of it becoming a long-term, chronic condition. In the early 1990s, the hepatitis B vaccine was added to the recommended infant immunization schedule. Since then, the rate of hepatitis B infection has declined about 90 percent.
  • Rotavirus. Diarrheal diseases, like rotavirus, are one of the leading causes of child mortality in the world. When I was a younger physician, I treated many babies who were very sick from rotavirus (watery diarrhea). It’s commonly spread in childcare settings, hospitals, and among families. It can be a major health problem for infants because it is very easy for them to get dehydrated. In fact, prior to the vaccine, almost all U.S. children were infected with the rotavirus at some point before their fifth birthday. Since the rotavirus vaccine was introduced, it has prevented 40,000 to 50,000 hospitalizations a year.
  • Haemophilus influenza type B (Hib). Hib disease is a serious illness caused by Haemophilus influenzaea type of bacteria. Children younger than five years old are most at risk for Hib disease, with infants being the most vulnerable. It can cause lifelong disability, permanent hearing loss, and intellectual or motor difficulties. In 1987, the Hib vaccine began protecting children against the diseases caused by Hib, including meningitis (the most common type of Hib disease), pneumonia, and more. Today, fewer than 50 cases of Hib disease are reported in young children in the U.S. each year. Most of these infections are in children who have not been vaccinated.
  • Polio. Polio is a very contagious and life-threatening disease caused by a virus. If the virus gets in the spinal cord, it can cause paralysis and death. Polio most often affects children under the age of five. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, there was a serious polio outbreak in the U.S. Thousands of people died or were disabled, businesses closed, travel was brought to a standstill, and parents were afraid to send their children outside. When a polio vaccine was finally introduced in the 1950s, it was highly effective. The U.S. has been nearly polio-free for more than 30 years. But the threat hasn’t disappeared. Polio is still very much present in other parts of the world. In fact, according to the CDC, “It would only take one person with polio traveling from another country to bring polio back to the United States.”

The Impact of COVID-19 on Routine Infant Immunizations

Unfortunately, routine infant immunizations declined nationwide during the COVID-19 pandemic, and still haven’t bounced back to pre-pandemic levels. Many people stayed home and skipped routine doctor appointments in 2020, resulting in a 26 percent drop in routine infant immunizations. This can put communities at risk. We are starting to see outbreaks of diseases that are no longer common in the U.S. — like measles — due to dropping vaccination rates in some pockets of the country. Thankfully, Philadelphia’s immunization rates remain steady.

That’s why it’s so important for parents to follow the routine infant immunization schedule. And, you can feel confident knowing that this schedule has been designed and reviewed by hundreds of the country’s top doctors, public health professionals, and scientists to ensure its safety and effectiveness. The bottom line? Getting your child vaccinated is one of the best things you can do to protect their health.

Independence Has Your Child Covered

To help ensure your child stays safe and healthy, be sure to follow the American Academy of Pediatrics schedule for routine well-child visits.

Independence Blue Cross (IBX) health plans provide coverage for well-child visits, developmental screenings, lead testing, vaccinations, and more! To learn about benefits for enrolled dependents, call the number on the back of your member ID card or log into ibx.com and navigate to the benefits tab. Independence Registered Nurse Health Coaches are also available 24/7 to answer your questions and provide support.

Questions

If you have any concerns about the recommended infant immunization schedule, vaccinations, or potential side effects, or if your child is behind on their vaccinations, talk to your child’s doctor.

Stephen Higgins, MD, FAAP

Dr Higgins graduated from Hahnemann Medical School (now Drexel University College of Medicine) in 1989 and went on to train as a Pediatrician and Neonatologist at DuPont Hospital for Children/Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. He spent most of his career as a Neonatologist at Crozer Chester Medical Center where he worked clinically in neonatal intensive care. He was actively involved in medical education rising to the level of Associate Dean at Crozer for Temple Medical School and more recently as the Associate Dean for Drexel’s Clinical Campus at Crozer. In addition to his role as Associate Dean, was the Chief Academic Officer and Pediatric Residency Director at Crozer before joining the Independence Blue Cross family in April of 2019.