It isn’t an understatement to say that immunization (or vaccination) is the biggest health achievement 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.
Vaccinations are especially important for infants because their immune systems aren’t fully developed, so they are at the highest risk of complications. What may otherwise be a minor illness for an adult could potentially be very serious or even fatal for an infant. Delaying (or spacing out) vaccinations beyond the recommended vaccine schedule puts your baby at risk when they are most vulnerable.
When I think of infant immunizations, I think back to all of the sick babies I took care of in the early days of my career (late 1980s and early 1990s). These babies suffered terribly from diseases for which we had no vaccines at the time. Since then, the introduction of new vaccines saved countless lives, and I am so grateful that we now have the ability to protect babies from needless suffering.
These are just some of the vaccinations that I have seen make a major difference in the lives of children:
- Hepatitis B: Hepatitis B is a liver disease caused by the hepatitis B virus. The virus can cause liver damage, cirrhosis, or lead to liver cancer. Infants and children younger than five are at particular risk because the younger you are when you get hepatitis B, the higher the risk of it becoming chronic. In the early 1990s, the hepatitis B vaccine was added to the recommended infant immunization schedule. The vaccine proved very effective—the rate of acute hepatitis B infections declined about 90 percent since the vaccination was added to the recommended immunization schedule.
- Rotavirus: Diarrheal diseases, like rotavirus, are one of the leading causes of child mortality. 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, and it can be a major health problem for infants. 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 in the 1990s, 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 influenzae, a type of bacteria. Babies and children younger than five years old are most at risk for Hib disease. It can cause lifelong disability, permanent hearing loss, and intellectual or motor difficulties. Luckily, the life-saving Hib vaccine began protecting children against the diseases caused by Hib including meningitis (the most common type of Hib disease), pneumonia, and more.
- Polio: Polio is a very contagious and life-threatening disease caused by the poliovirus. It can get in the spinal cord and cause paralysis and death. It most often affects children under the age of five. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, there was a terrifying polio outbreak in the United States. 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. So much so that the United States has been 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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (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 Infant Immunizations
Unfortunately, like many things, infant immunizations have been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. With many people staying home and skipping routine doctor appointments in 2020, routine infant immunizations dropped by 26 percent. This is very concerning since it puts communities at risk and creates conditions where outbreaks are more likely, especially in the developing world. Diseases that are no longer common in the United States — like measles — are at risk of returning due to dropping vaccination rates. Thankfully, Philadelphia’s immunization rates stayed steady.
That’s why it’s as important as ever for parents to follow the suggested infant immunization schedule. According to the CDC, the 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 14 potentially serious diseases at exactly the right time.” And, you can feel confident knowing that the 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? Immunizations are one of the best things you can do to protect your child’s health.
Independence Has Your Child Covered
Independence Blue Cross (Independence) health plans provide coverage for well-child visits, developmental screenings, lead testing, immunizations, and more! To learn about benefits for enrolled dependents, call the number on the back of your member ID card.
Members who have a concern or complaint about accessing timely care from their child’s provider may call the Member Services number listed on the back of their ID card and request to file a quality of care complaint.
If you have any questions about infant vaccinations, or if your child is behind on his or her vaccinations, talk to your child’s doctor.