It’s no wonder that immunizations are at the top of the “Ten Great Public Health Achievements in the 20th Century” list. Thanks to the development of these immune-boosting medications, most U.S. parents today and their children have never experienced illnesses that were once commonplace, such as rubella (German measles), mumps, tetanus, diphtheria, polio, and others—illnesses that previously ran rampant in communities and caused severe disability and even death.
Although many of these diseases have been eradicated, the viruses and bacteria that cause them still exist and can cause disease outbreaks in communities where the majority of habitants are unvaccinated. For example, in December 2014, there was a multi-state outbreak of measles linked to unvaccinated visitors at Disneyland; and in 2010, thousands of California residents became infected with whooping cough.
Infants are at greater risk for disease
Immunizations are designed to prime the immune system, so vaccinated individuals are ready to fight disease should they encounter a particular virus or bacteria. But newborns have no such “priming.” And, except for the doses of Hepatitis B vaccine given at birth and the one-month check-up, infants receive no vaccinations until their two-month check-up. For some diseases, several doses of vaccine may be required before full protection is achieved. This leaves a lot of worried parents wondering what they can do to keep their infants safe from these illnesses before their child is fully immunized.
To help reduce your infant’s risk for vaccine-preventable disease:
- Keep infants home. Everyone should avoid people who are exhibiting symptoms of illness, but to reduce babies’ risk of exposure to viruses and bacteria circulating in public spaces, pediatricians generally recommend keeping young infants at home as much as possible until about 3 months of age. As a result of the 2014-15 measles outbreak, some pediatricians have extended this recommendation to infants of all ages.
- For mom, be sure to get your pertussis and flu vaccinations. Mothers should receive a pertussis vaccination at 27-36 weeks of pregnancy. If the pertussis vaccination is missed during pregnancy, mothers should get it after birth and prior to leaving the hospital. Mothers should also receive a flu vaccine during pregnancy to help provide protection against the flu for their newborn; however, since this protection wanes by the time the baby is about 8 weeks old, it is important for others around the baby to be vaccinated from the flu too.
- Cocoon to keep your baby safe. Make sure that all parents, grandparents, and other caregivers are up-to-date on their vaccinations, including pertussis (whooping cough) and flu. You can find immunization schedules for children, teens, and adults here. Although this won’t provide direct protection for the baby, it will reduce the infant’s risk of contracting the disease from someone in her immediate circle.
- Consider early vaccination. The CDC recommends giving infants the measles vaccine as early as 6 months of age if the infant is traveling to an area where measles is known to be active. This vaccination would be in addition to those on the standard schedule. Discuss your child’s particular needs with his health care provider.
- Breastfeed your baby. In addition to nutrients and minerals your child needs to grow, a mother’s breast milk conveys immune factors that help keep her baby healthy. A mother’s body makes antibodies to fight illnesses to which she is exposed, and it shares those antibodies with her baby through her breast milk.
- Follow good hygiene. The same strategies that help prevent the common cold can help limit the spread of vaccine-preventable illnesses. All family members should wash their hands often (when returning home, after using the bathroom or changing a diaper, after using a tissue, before eating or preparing food). Disinfect common surfaces (doorknobs, light switches, faucet handles) and change hand towels regularly. Cover your mouth or nose during coughing or sneezing, with a tissue or your elbow. Keep your hands away from your face. Don’t share food or drink.
For more on the benefits of childhood vaccinations, read this.