WHEELING - Childhood vaccines protect not only the youngest in our society but the community in general - a concept called "herd immunity."
"I always tell people that the germs are still there and the only thing that keeps them at bay is everyone being immunized," said Becky Beckett, Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department nursing director.
Local health departments increasingly are being questioned by parents about vaccines and their safety. Some parents also seek to have their children exempted for reasons ranging from medical to religious.
Beckett said across the country, cases of pertussis, also known as whooping cough, in children are on the rise. Scientists attribute the increase to fewer children getting the vaccine.
Infants are especially vulnerable because their immune systems aren't yet developed. It is important for babies' adult caregivers to get the pertussis vaccine also, she said.
"It doesn't seem that bad in adults, but it can be fatal to an infant," Beckett said of pertussis. "That's why we encourage adults to get the DTaP. ... There was infant a few years back in Ohio County that died. There's been an outbreak in California and other states and infants succumbed to it. The vaccine can prevent that."
Dr. Jennifer Frangos, a Wheeling-based family practice physician, said vaccines go through lengthy testing to make sure they are safe for people. The use of some vaccines has helped eliminate diseases such as small pox and polio from the United States' population, she added.
"And when children are vaccinated, it prevents parents from missing work," Frangos added.
Frangos advises that parents not delay in getting their youngsters vaccinated.
"They should make sure they get started right away. It's important to stick with follow-ups so they get vaccinated when they are supposed to," Frangos said.
Frangos noted she and Dr. Max West will be working in Ohio Valley Medical Center's new walk-in medical clinic for people of all ages at The Highlands in February.
Beckett said for older children in school or those entering kindergarten, parents should not wait until the last minute to get their children vaccinated.
"Don't wait until the end of summer - that's when it's congested and crowded. It can start now as long as they are age eligible. Come early in the summer or spring," Beckett said of immunization clinics at the health department.
Only recently, people's concerns about vaccines have started to wane because of lingering claims that vaccines are responsible for causing autism. A study that claimed the measles/mumps/rubella vaccine caused autism in children was debunked.
The doctor, Andrew Wakefield, made the claims in the Lancet journal 14 years ago. After an investigation, the British Medical Journal called his claims fraudulent. He lost his license in Britain and in the U.S.
In the past, parents also had concerns about vaccines with thimerosal, a preservative containing mercury. But because of those concerns, all pediatric vaccines are thimerosol free. Some flu vaccines still contain it, but parents can ask for thimerosal-free flu vaccinations.
West Virginia requires children receive vaccinations before entering school. Vermont and California are looking to strengthen their laws to a similar standard as West Virginia's because of vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks.
Beckett said over the years there have been shortages of various vaccines caused by either low volume of production, more demand or both. For example, the CDC recommends booster shots for students in seventh and 12th grades. She noted, however, the health department has not experienced vaccine shortages.
"It does seem like children get a lot of vaccines. ... But the reason for the frequency is that the primary series is important. New babies don't have strong immune systems. They are susceptible to infection," Beckett said.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children need the following immunizations to stay healthy: