Thirteen years ago, Evelyn Massulo of Wappingers Falls made sure that her daughter, Leeza, was immunized against childhood illnesses. Now that she’s a second-time mom to six-month-old Alexandra, she didn’t think twice about following the schedule for shots again to help to strengthen her baby’s immune system and fight against preventable illnesses, like measles, mumps, rubella and pneumococcal disease.
“It’s important to keep your little ones as healthy as possible,” says Dr. Melissa Schiskie, a family practice provider with Family Practice Center of Hyde Park. “Vaccines have resulted in the decrease of incidences of many diseases, such as polio and smallpox.”
From the beginning
Those immunizations usually begin at baby’s birth.
“Typically, a Hepatitis B vaccine is given in the nursery and most of the other vaccines start as early as six weeks, then at 4 and 6 months. There are more vaccines when the baby is 9, 12 and 15 months, including the combination measles, mumps and rubella shot, and chicken pox vaccine,” Dr. Schiskie says.
Dr. Walter Woodley, a family practitioner at the Institute at Kingston Family Health Center says that the job of vaccinations is to trick the immune system.
“This disease is coming so the immune system ramps itself up to fight, even though the vaccine isn’t the real thing,” he says. “However, the whole system is in place so that, in the event if and when the real thing comes, the antibodies kills it.”
When a baby is born, Woodley explains that its immune system is a blank slate. Although he generally recommends breastfeeding to help transfer antibodies to the baby, Dr. Woodley says that he has gone one step further and started also recommending that parents and any other family caretakers get certain immunizations before the baby is born as an extra layer of extra protection.
“We’ve started recommending that the parents get a flu vaccine and a pertussis vaccine before the baby is born,” he says. “The immunization from the pertussis vaccine is going to wane over time. If Grandma has a cough caused by pertussis, maybe it is not affecting her breathing, it’s just a cough, but if a baby is exposed to grandma’s cough before their immunity to pertussis has kicked in, the condition is most devastating.”
Parents are often worried that there are too many vaccinations too soon, but according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, babies are exposed to many antigens every time they eat, play on the floor or put a toy in their mouth – more than what they will get from the vaccines, and although infants do receive a lot of shots, they are given at the time babies are most at risk of illness and serious complications from the disease.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), millions of children are safely vaccinated each year and the most common side effects are mild, such as pain or swelling at the injection site, fussiness, or a low-grade fever can happen and tend to go away within a few days.
But serious side effects like seizures or convulsions, non-stop crying for three hours or more, very high fevers (above 104 degrees), serious allergic reactions, severe brain reactions, and low blood counts have been reported, although the CDC says all are so rare (about 1 in 14,000 for seizures, for example), they question whether those reactions are actually caused by the vaccines or other underlying illnesses.
And although the infant vaccination schedule does seem like a lot of shots for your little one, Dr. Schiskie says that combined vaccines can result in fewer actual shots for your child.
“I don't have huge concerns about the immunizations that are given to my daughters, because in the long run it’s preventative medicine,” Masullo says. “As a parent there are always concerns, but I'm a strong believer in keeping them as healthy as possible. I've learned to pick my battles wisely and this battle is something I'm willing to fight for.”
Still, there are parents who consider not vaccinating a good way to keep their children healthy.
“At my son’s 18 month checkup, he was given three vaccinations at once and then he stopped growing and stopped hugging me,” says Melissa, a Red Hook mom of two.
Over the next few years, she tried a variety of therapies to help her son improve – including occupational therapy and alternative medicines. “It took him a long time to get better,” she said.
But when her daughter was born and had her first MMR shot, she started to think that her kids were allergic to the vaccinations.
“Her bowels changed – from normal to loose and runny – and it was then that it clicked that it might be the vaccine,” she says.
Since the kids had the minimum number of vaccinations they needed to enroll into school, Melissa and her husband made the decision not to continue the immunizations. Both her children are healthy now, she adds.
Anti-vaccination proponents have long argued a link between autism and vaccinations. While there has not been scientific proof that links the two, some parents of children with autism contend that their anecdotal evidence strongly proves there is a connection.
In New York state, according to the National Vaccination Immunization Center, immunization requirements can be waved if parents hold “genuine and sincere religious beliefs” against having their child immunized. Medical exemptions are also allowed, although, according to the state Department of Health, children in day care, Head Start, nursery school or prekindergarten must be immunized against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, measles, mumps, rubella, polio, hepatitis B, varicella, Hib, and pneumococcal disease.
Melissa says that her decision not to continue vaccinating her children has been difficult, but dealing with the opinions of others has been just as hard. Those differing opinions have also forced her to change pediatric offices on several occasions because of doctors who were not open to her decision.
“This subject brings out the worst in people because it’s a heated subject with differing opinions,” she says.
“But how hard is it for me?” she adds. “If your kid was allergic to milk and everything you read says that your kid needs milk, what would you do? You probably wouldn’t give them milk and you’d find other ways to keep them as healthy as you can. You have to recognize that giving that child milk isn’t the right thing to do.”
Communication is key
Although there is a set immunization schedule, Dr. Schiskie says that some providers will work with the parents if they have concerns about giving shots to their babies or if they need a slight amendment.
“We’ve worked with patients who go off schedule, but we make sure their child still gets the vaccines,” she says. “Have a provider you can trust and remember that it is not a bad thing to ask questions. Listen to the person that you are entrusting. Talk about what your concerns are and come to an understanding together for your child’s treatment plan.”
Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer who lives in Poughkeepsie and is a regular contributor to Hudson Valley Parent.