Vaccines should be on back-to-school lists

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Stop the spread of germs

Winnipeg Health Region
Published Thursday, September 3, 2015

In the rush to get their kids ready for school this fall, there's one critical thing many parents tend to overlook: the need to ensure their child is up-to-date on immunizations.

Statistics show more than 90 per cent of children in Manitoba receive a vaccine for measles, mumps, rubella and varicella (MMRV) on or about their first birthday. Yet by the time they are scheduled for their second dose - between the ages of four and six - the immunization rate drops to around 75 per cent. A similar number of children are also missing the booster dose for tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis and polio (Tdap-IPV, or 4-in-1 vaccine), also given between the ages of four and six.

The result is a significant number of children enter kindergarten without adequate protection against viruses and bacteria that can cause serious illness.

Measles, for example, is a viral infection that causes rashes, runny nose, high fever and cough. It may also lead to ear infections and pneumonia. Although rare, it can also cause swelling of the brain, which may lead to seizures, mental disability, or even death.

Chickenpox (varicella) will leave your child with an itchy rash of fluid-filled blisters. Most people recover completely, but in severe cases, chickenpox can lead to serious infections of the skin, joints or blood.

Mumps will result in fever, headache and swollen glands around the jaw. In adults and older children, mumps can cause painful swelling in the testicles, and in rare cases, may cause problems with fertility.

Rubella causes a rash, mild fever and swelling of the glands around the neck. It is especially dangerous for pregnant women and can cause a miscarriage or a baby born with a serious disability.

Although the odds of your child contracting one of these infections is relatively low, it is not uncommon to hear about outbreaks. A measles outbreak traced to an amusement park in California last year infected more than 100 people, including some from Canada. One visitor brought the virus home to Quebec and infected an additional 100 people.

There have been no major outbreaks of measles in Manitoba recently, but individual cases do occur, often related to travel.

Outbreaks are less likely to occur when immunization rates are high, largely because of something called "herd immunity." If most children at a school are up-to-date on their vaccines, then an unvaccinated child is less likely to be exposed to vaccine-preventable diseases. And if a case occurs, it isn't as likely to spread further because most people are protected through immunization. But life isn't limited to contact at school; your child could catch a virus at any public setting, such as a playground or the mall.

Being protected by the "herd" doesn't work for all vaccine-preventable diseases. Take tetanus. High immunization rates do not protect those who are unvaccinated from getting tetanus because it is not spread from person to person. It's a disease caused by spores in dirt and dust and may enter the body through cuts on the skin. Commonly called lockjaw, tetanus causes painful muscle contractions in the jaw and neck muscles. It interferes with the ability to breathe and can ultimately prove fatal.

Fortunately, it is easier than ever to make sure your child is up-to-date with their immunizations.

Immunize Canada has an app to let parents know when their child's next doses are due. The app can be set for Manitoba's immunization schedule, and can help manage appointments for your family. The free app can be downloaded here.

You can also call your health-care provider, who can access the provincial immunization registry, which tracks the immunization records of all Manitobans. The province also sends letters to parents of children who are 5 ½ years old who are overdue for vaccines.

Sure, taking your child for an injection isn't the most pleasant experience, but there are ways to prepare for the visit. Talk to your health-care provider about your child's fears of being vaccinated. And talk honestly to your child. The injection only takes a few seconds, and there are strategies that can help.

So, make a note: add immunizations to your back-to-school prep list and prepare your child for a wonderful start to the school year.

Dr. Carol Kurbis is a medical officer of health with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 28, 2015.

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