Parents are constantly concerned about the health and safety of their children and they take
many steps to protect them. These preventive measures range from child-proof door latches to
child safety seats. In the same respect, vaccines work to safeguard children from illnesses and
death caused by infectious diseases. Vaccines protect children by helping prepare their bodies
to fight often serious, and potentially, deadly diseases.
A weakened form of the disease germ is injected into the body. The body makes antibodies to
fight these invaders. If actual disease germs ever attack the body, the antibodies will still be
there to destroy them.
Disease Prevention--Protect Those Around You
Disease prevention is the key to public health. It is always better to prevent a disease than to
treat it. Vaccines prevent disease in the people who receive them and protect those who come
into contact with unvaccinated individuals. Vaccines help prevent infectious diseases and save
lives. Vaccines are responsible for the control of many infectious diseases that were once
common in this country, including polio, measles, diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough),
rubella (German measles), mumps, tetanus, and Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib).
Vaccine-preventable diseases have a costly impact, resulting in doctor's visits, hospitalizations,
and premature deaths. Sick children can also cause parents to lose time from work.
Each child is born with a full immune system composed of cells, glands, organs, and fluids that
are located throughout his or her body to fight invading bacteria and viruses. The immune
system recognizes germs that enter the body as "foreign" invaders, or antigens, and produces
protein substances called antibodies to fight them. A normal, healthy immune system has the
ability to produce millions of these antibodies to defend against thousands of attacks every day,
doing it so naturally that people are not even aware they are being attacked and defended so
often (Whitney, 1990). Many antibodies disappear once they have destroyed the invading
antigens, but the cells involved in antibody production remain and become "memory cells."
Memory cells remember the original antigen and then defend against it when the antigen
attempts to re-infect a person, even after many decades. This protection is called immunity.
Vaccines contain the same antigens or parts of antigens that cause diseases, but the antigens in
vaccines are either killed or greatly weakened. When they are injected into fatty tissue or
muscle, vaccine antigens are not strong enough to produce the symptoms and signs of the
disease but are strong enough for the immune system to produce antibodies against them
(Tortora and Anagnostakos, 1981). The memory cells that remain prevent re-infection when
they encounter that disease in the future. Thus, through vaccination, children develop
immunity without suffering from the actual diseases that vaccines prevent.
Why are Childhood Vaccines So Important?
It's true that newborn babies are immune to many diseases because they have antibodies they
got from their mothers. However, the duration of this immunity may last only a month to about
a year. Further, young children do not have maternal immunity against some vaccinepreventable
diseases, such as whooping cough.
If a child is not vaccinated and is exposed to a disease germ, the child's body may not be strong
enough to fight the disease. Before vaccines, many children died from diseases that vaccines
now prevent, such as whooping cough, measles, and polio. Those same germs exist today, but
babies are now protected by vaccines, so we do not see these diseases as often.
Immunizing individual children also helps to protect the health of our community, especially
those people who are not immunized. People who are not immunized include those who are
too young to be vaccinated (e.g., children less than a year old cannot receive the measles
vaccine but can be infected by the measles virus), those who cannot be vaccinated for medical
reasons (e.g., children with leukemia), and those who cannot make an adequate response to
vaccination. Also protected, therefore, are people who received a vaccine, but who have not
developed immunity. In addition, people who are sick will be less likely to be exposed to
disease germs that can be passed around by unvaccinated children. Immunization also slows
down or stops disease outbreaks.