August is here, and that means summer is starting to wrap up. If you have children, it’s also time to start getting ready for a new school year. Along with shopping for new clothes and school supplies, one of the most important things to do before the school year starts is to make sure that your child’s immunizations are up to date.
Vaccines are an important part of preventive health. And vaccination also helps to protect the health of the community at large by decreasing the incidence of vaccine-preventable illnesses and therefore exposure to these illnesses. After a huge outbreak that resulted in thousands of cases of measles and over a hundred deaths across the country, the CDC in 1994 introduced a program entitled, Vaccines for Children (VFC). VFC was developed to make sure that virtually every child would be able to receive vaccines even if they didn’t have health insurance. The CDC reports that since 1994, 20 million hospital visits and potentially 732,000 deaths have been avoided thanks to vaccines. Because of the VFC program, children in our country are no longer at significant risk from diseases that once killed thousands each year.
Your child’s age and any previous vaccinations they have had will determine what they need before school begins. All students entering kindergarten will need a series of DTaP shots that protect against the diseases of diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (whooping cough) and MMR shots that protect against measles, mumps, and rubella. Students will also need immunizations to protect them against polio, chickenpox, hepatitis, and certain bacterial infections. Older children may need different vaccines or booster shots. In particular, students entering the 6th grade require a meningococcal vaccine to protect them against a bacterium that causes meningitis and blood infections. They also require the Tdap vaccine, a booster shot to help protect them from the same diseases that DTaP protected them from as a little kid.
While not yet required for school, pediatricians also recommend the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination beginning at age 11 or 12 to protect against cancers caused by HPV infection. HPV is a common virus that infects teens and adults. About 1 in 4 Americans are infected with HPV. Approximately 14 million people, including teens, become infected each year. People may not even know they have been infected with HPV because most never develop symptoms. But HPV infection can cause cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers in women and penile cancer in men. HPV can also cause anal cancer, cancer of the back of the throat (oropharynx), and genital warts in both men and women. Unfortunately, health care providers cannot predict who will go on to develop cancers from HPV and who will not. This is why it is important for children ages 11 or 12 years old to get two shots of the HPV vaccine six to 12 months apart. Adolescents who receive their two shots less than five months apart or who postpone initiation of the series until age 15 or older, will require a third dose of the HPV vaccine. If your teen hasn’t gotten the vaccine yet, talk to their health care provider about how to get it as soon as possible.
Your child’s primary care provider is your best resource for helping to keep them happy and healthy. Keep in mind that this time of year is also a great time to get your child in for their yearly checkup and sports physicals. These visits are a great opportunity to review with your child’s health care provider which vaccines your child may need.
Summer is certainly busy, and the school year can sneak up on you fast. Don’t put off these important health measures!
April M. Douglass-Bright, MD, is the Division Head of General Pediatrics at Cooper University Health Care. For more information about this topic or other services available at Children’s Regional Hospital, please click here.