The vaccine low-down: Protecting your children against chickenpox, meningitis and more

This article was written by Katelyn Best and originally appeared in the Portland Monthly 2017 Kids’ Health Annual magazine.

From DTap to measles, mumps and rubella, the list of vaccinations children are advised to get can seem overwhelming. And with fears about side effects, allergic reactions and even autism on the wind, it might seem better to cut down on those shots or skip them altogether.

But is that hesitation justified? In short, no.

Dawn Nolt, M.D., M.P.H., pediatric infectious disease specialist at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, recommends talking through any concerns with a trusted medical provider; however, she also emphasizes that “vaccines are very safe and very effective, and that serious diseases can occur if your child or family are not immunized.”

These serious diseases range from scary stuff like polio to seemingly more prosaic infections like chickenpox. But even if an illness doesn’t seem severe, that doesn’t mean it’s safe to skip immunizations. Even the common flu can lead to serious complications, such as a secondary infection or superinfection.

“When you combat viruses, your immune system gets distracted, and some bacteria that normally are held in check can surge up,” Dr. Nolt explains. Vaccines eliminate that risk.

If your own child’s health weren’t reason enough to vaccinate, there’s a bigger issue at play: herd immunity (otherwise known as community immunity). As Dr. Nolt explains, “An infection in one person can’t be spread to the population if there’s no one else vulnerable to that infection.”

That community-level protection is important, because not everyone can make the choice to get immunized, including infants and folks with certain medical conditions.

Once you’ve decided to vaccinate, how do you know what the right schedule is? 

“We encourage all families to have a discussion with their medical provider about the best care their child should have,” Dr. Nolt says. The list of shots required by Oregon schools is a start, but it doesn’t cover everything. The human papillomavirus (or HPV) vaccine, for instance, isn’t on that list, but doctors recommend both boys and girls get it by age 11 or 12 years. HPV is a sexually transmitted virus that can cause cancer years or even decades after exposure.

Another important series of shots not required by Oregon schools are the meningococcal vaccines, which protect against some strains of bacteria that can cause meningitis. There are three different bugs to cover here: Kids should be immunized against the first two by 15 months of age. The vaccine against the third one, Neisseria meningitidis – which Dr. Nolt says is the rarest but “most devastating” – is given to teens and young adults.

What if all those shots seem like a little much? Can you skip some, or delay them until later?

Nope, says Dr. Nolt. “The CDC meets every year to assess the effect vaccinations have had on our pediatric patients,” she explains. “The types of vaccines, and have they’re given, have been meticulously studied.”

Learn more about the HPV vaccine here.