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Childhood immunization protects individuals, communities

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The approach of a new school year brings with it a hefty to-do list: school supplies must be purchased, new routines established – and children of some ages must be vaccinated. As back to school tasks go, immunization is seriously consequential for the health of children and their classmates.

Just 100 years ago, illnesses like polio, measles, and diphtheria routinely threatened people’s lives and had debilitating effects. Today, these diseases are rare, thanks in large part to mandatory vaccination of schoolchildren. 

“Immunizations have worked to really cut down on the numbers of diseases. A lot of these we don’t see much anymore,” said Lake County Public Health Nurse Leigh Estvold.

According to the CDC, a vaccine prepares the body’s immune system to fight an illness by introducing an “imitation” infection. Because it is an imitation infection rather than the real thing, the body does not become infected. However, it does build defenses that will ward off the vaccine-preventable disease. As a result, the immune system is able to fight off the illness if exposed.  

Estvold noted that vaccines do not just protect the individual. When fewer people are infected by illnesses that can be prevented by vaccines, it reduces the likelihood that those who might be vulnerable to a disease will become infected. Infants, those with weak immune systems, and those with medical conditions that prevent them from being vaccinated are especially susceptible to disease, but they are protected when those around them are vaccinated.

Montana state law requires children enrolled in school to be up to date on the following vaccines: Haemophilus influenza Type B; Diphtheria, Tetanus, and Pertussis; Polio; Measles, Mumps, and Rubella; and Varicella (chickenpox). Most vaccinations must be administered before children enter kindergarten, and children must be given a booster dose of the Tetanus, Diphtheria and Pertussis (TDap) immunization before they enter seventh grade. 

The only exceptions to vaccination laws are for families with religious justifications for refusing to vaccinate their children, and children with medical conditions that would cause vaccines to harm them. These children may be asked to stay home from school if there is an outbreak of a disease for which most children have received a vaccination.

No scientific studies support the claim that vaccines cause autism or chronic illness. Much of the concern over the safety of vaccines stems from a now-debunked 1997 study that claimed to have found a link between autism and the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine. The study has been disproven by subsequent research, and the doctor who published it has been stripped of his medical license.

Estvold says that parents who are concerned about the safety of vaccines should look at the research that has been done on immunizations. 

She says that according to the data, “it’s much safer to get your child vaccinated than to risk getting one of these diseases.”

Estvold added that parents who do not have their children vaccinated must also consider the risk of their child infecting a susceptible classmate or community member.

“You have to look at it globally,” she said.

Estvold says that a small number of parents in Lake County choose not to vaccinate because they are concerned about safety. According to Estvold, the number of people who do not vaccinate has held steady in recent years. 

Primary care doctors keep children up to date on their shots during regular visits. Children who do not regularly visit a physician can be vaccinated at a local healthcare center. The Lake County Public Health Department in Polson administers immunizations during a walk-in vaccination clinic each Tuesday from 1 to 4 p.m., or by appointment. Health insurance will cover the vaccinations. The health department provides vaccinations for children who are not insured, free of cost.


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