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Immunizations 101: What Vaccines A Child Needs When

“This will hurt a little bit,” the doctor warns.

It’s a phrase that can cause the bravest among us to wince in anticipation of a shot even well into adulthood, and especially if your baby is on the receiving end. The list of vaccines that every child gets before age 2 can feel overwhelming, but moms and dads should feel confident that they are doing the right thing for their children when it comes to immunizations.

What is a vaccine?

Vaccines work by sparking the body’s natural immune system to build up a resistance to a particular disease. They go through rigorous testing for safety at every stage. Though some may have mild side effects at times, they do not put a child at risk.

The schedule is designed to protect children from serious disease as soon as possible because they are most vulnerable in the first two years of life. The temporary moment of discomfort a child feels prevents far greater suffering that would occur if they contracted the disease they are being protected from.

Immunization schedules

Birth to 6 years

  • Hepatitis B
    Given at birth and at months 1, 2, 6, 12, 15, and 18 (7 total doses)
  • Rotavirus (RV)
    Given at months 2, 4, and 6 (3 total doses)
  • Diptheria (DTaP)
    Given at months 2, 4, 6, 15, and 18, and between years 4 and 6 (6 total doses)
  • Hib (Haemophilus influenzae type B)
    Given at months 2, 4, and 6, and between months 12 and 15 (4 total doses)
  • Pneumococcal (pneumonia)
    Given at months 2, 4, and 6, and between months 12 and 15 (4 total doses)
  • Polio
    Given at months 2 and 4; between months 6 and 18; and between years 4 and 6 (4 total doses)
  • Flu
    Given yearly starting at 6 months
  • Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR)
    Given between months 12 and 15, and between years 4 and 6 (2 total doses)
  • Chickenpox
    Given between months 12 and 15 and between years 4 and 6 (2 total doses)
  • Hepatitis A
    Given between months 12 and 23 (2 total doses)

7 and older

  • Tetanus, Diptheria, Pertussis (Tdap)
    Given at years 11 or 12 (one dose)
  • Human Papillomavirus (HPV)
    Given between years 11 and 12 (3 total doses)
  • Meningococcal (meningitis)
    Given at years 11 or 12 (one dose); booster at 16 years old
  • Flu
    Given yearly

Find source information at the CDC website.

How we know vaccines work

“Most parents today aren’t familiar with the illnesses that many vaccines prevent,” says Dr. Suzanne Corrington, medical director at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. “That’s largely because the vaccines are so successful. Many people today don’t know anyone who had polio or meningitis, for example, and so may not understand how serious — or even fatal — they can be, especially in young children. A baby’s heart and respiratory system are still developing, so they are at particular risk for more serious symptoms from an illness that attacks the lungs, for example.”

Sticking to the recommended ages for these immunizations helps cut that risk.

Older children need shots too

When a child gets out into the world among people, their risk of exposure to disease increases. Almost every parent goes through a period of dealing with various contagious sicknesses once their child starts daycare or school. Though unpleasant, the problems tend to be relatively minor: the common cold, lice, a stomach bug.

It wasn’t long ago that kids were also coming home with measles, mumps and chickenpox. Decades of widespread immunizations have put an end to those dangers, lessening the risk of exposure overall. This is known as “herd immunity.” When the majority of people in a community are vaccinated against a disease, those who have not yet or cannot be vaccinated are also protected, since the larger population won’t contract the disease and expose them to it.

Tennessee law requires certain immunizations for children in childcare, pre-school and grade school. Some children get exemptions due to compromised immune systems (for example, a child who has cancer). Some parents are personally opposed to vaccines, often due to a mistaken belief that they are not safe.

“There is still a lot of misinformation about vaccines based on one published study that has been disproven,” says Dr. Corrington. “I always encourage parents with questions to talk to their pediatrician, and often guide them to the CDC page where there is scientific information about the safety of all the vaccines.”

What about the HPV vaccine?

A recent vaccine, not on the list of required immunizations, prevents cervical cancer and is also widely misunderstood. The HPV immunization prevents the human papilloma virus, which is the primary cause of cervical cancer. It is recommended for both girls and boys at age 11 or 12. Because HPV is a sexually transmitted virus, some parents connect the vaccine to sexual activity rather than cancer prevention and are not comfortable with their children getting the vaccination. That perception can change with greater understanding.

Should children have flu shots?

Dr. Corrington also advises parents to be sure their children get annual flu shots.

“We used to think of the flu shot as optional for children unless they had asthma or a chronic illness that put them at risk for complications, but now the recommendation is that every child should get a flu shot each year. The flu can be dangerous — and this past year there was an increase in the number of deaths in children due to flu,” Dr. Corrington says.

Keep track of all shots

While a  pediatrician’s office will keep a record of their patients’ immunizations, parents should keep a set of records of their own. It will be much easier to retrieve official records if you can readily provide the date and doctor’s name. This reference sheet will come in handy if the family moves or the child goes to a new school, camp or any place that requires such records.

To learn more about vaccines, read about the flu vaccine here.

Nancy Henderson

Nancy Henderson, a writer and editor originally from New York, moved to Nashville more than 25 years ago and considers herself more Tennessean than Yankee these days. She has written about health care and wellness for a variety of publications.

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