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Immunizing isn't a matter of choice

What is your excuse for not immunizing your child?

1. My baby is healthy. There is no reason to take my youngster to the physician.

Just because a baby is healthy does not mean she will not get a childhood disease. Immunizations can protect against diseases such as measles, mumps, polio and chicken pox. Some of these diseases can be a serious threat to your baby and other family members.

2. My baby will not get the measles or polio. Nobody gets these illnesses anymore.

Polio was eliminated from the United States in 1979, thanks to polio vaccines. Until polio is eliminated from the world, however, it would be a mistake to stop immunization against this disease. Because of the high rates of travel between the United States and countries where polio is still present, an infected traveler could pass along the disease to an unimmunized child. In addition, failure to immunize can lead to new outbreaks of disease. In 1989-1991, a measles epidemic in the United States resulted in more than 55,000 reported cases, 11,000 hospitalizings and about 130 deaths. Half these deaths were in young children.

3. Childhood diseases are not serious.

Most vaccine-preventable diseases are potentially fatal. For example, tetanus kills three of the 10 people it strikes, and diphtheria kills one of the 10. Polio, pertussis, measles, mumps, rubella (German measles), hepatitis B and spinal meningitis are also deadly but preventable.

4. Vaccines can cause Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

Extensive medical research has shown that there is no relationship between receiving an immunization and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. The reason some in the media have suggested a relationship is that the greatest risk of SIDS is at four months, and infants receive their primary immunizations at two, four and six months of age.

5. The DPT vaccine against whooping cough can produce side effects.

A new pertussis vaccine, introduced in 1996, has virtually eliminated all the side effects associated with the DTP vaccine. The old vaccine was made by taking pertussis bacteria and the toxin they produced and then inactivating the mixture with chemicals to make the vaccine. The new vaccine, known as the DTaP, is made from the toxin; whole bacteria are not present. The resulting immunization gives the same protection against pertussis without the side effects.

5. I cannot take the time off work to take my baby to the physician.

The time it takes to immunize your children is brief compared to the time it will take to care for them should they become seriously ill. Childhood illnesses such as measles can put children in bed for weeks, or even in the hospital.

6. I cannot afford to go to the physician.

Most private and public health plans pay for childhood immunizations. Free or low-cost vaccinations for children are available through the Vaccines for Children Program. Public health clinics are required by law to provide vaccinations to people who are unable to pay. There is no charge for the vaccine; however, an administration fee may be charged.

Parents without a regular health care provider for their child should call the National Immunization Program Hotline to locate the nearest place to get life-protecting shots. Their number is (800) 232-2522.

In addition, vaccines save money. Treating a child with a preventable illness can cost parents 30 times more than the vaccine. Vaccines save money on both direct (medication and hospital expenses) and indirect (lost wages for parents and babysitter expenses) costs. For example, for every dollar spent on measles/mumps/rubella immunization programs, as much as $21 can be saved.

7. I'll take them for shots when they are old enough for school.

Children need most of their vaccines before age 2. For some diseases, children younger than 2 are at the greatest risk. For example, between 1992 and 1994, 78 percent of deaths due to pertussis (whooping cough) were in children younger than six months of age. One of four American 2-year-olds lacks one or more recommended vaccination. Most child-care providers and schools will not accept children who do not have all their immunizations.

8. My physician did not tell me my baby needed shots.

It is up to parents to make sure their children are protected. Physicians may forget to discuss immunizations with parents at each visit. Parents should keep records of their children's immunizations in a safe place and bring them to every health-care visit. Ask the physician or other health-care provider to look at the record and tell whether vaccinations are needed.

Bruce A. Epstein has practiced pediatrics in St. Petersburg since 1973. He is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

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