Every parent understands the importance of a routine and the balance they help maintain. They help get your kids to school before the bell rings, they allow you to carve out bonding time with your little one, and above all, they provide a sense of normalcy against the backdrop of family life. But the concept of a routine extends beyond your day-to-day — they're important for your kid’s health, too, especially when it comes to routine vaccinations.
Take it from Tochi Iroku-Malize, MD, a family physician, healthcare advocate, and mother whose career was founded on family health and wellness. “I wanted to take care of any patient anywhere, anytime,” she says. “Family medicine was the specialty that allowed for that.” Her immunization advocacy started back in 1999 during her residency, where she worked in an underserved population where vaccines weren’t readily available. “You see people who developed illnesses that could have been prevented by just getting vaccinated,” she says.
More than 20 years later, Dr. Iroku-Malize continues her advocacy work as the president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. To help spread awareness about disease prevention, we asked her to answer some of parents’ biggest questions about getting their children vaccinated. From big questions, such as why vaccines are so important, to smaller ones, such as the logistics behind a vaccination schedule, keep reading to understand the importance of keeping your children up-to-date on all of their routine vaccinations.
Dr. Iroku-Malize says that vaccines save lives by building up protection against disease. Especially as we move into flu season, it’s important that children get their routine vaccinations to stay safe. “These [illnesses] can be just transmitted just from coughing, from contact, and that's what children do, right?” she says. “If you have the vaccine and you get [that illness], then the chances are that the illness will not progress to the point where you develop complications.”
On the other hand, if your child is not vaccinated and they get infected by a virus, Dr. Iroku-Malize notes how that leaves them vulnerable to complications and the risk of hospitalization. “[If] you prevent an illness for a child, the child is able to interact freely, get their education, go to school uninterrupted, have friends, and interact with their friends in the community,” she says.
Vaccines not only help protect your kids by letting them safely participate in everyday life, but they help protect teachers, school support staff, other kids in your school, and family and friends. For example, there may be some people who are unable to get vaccinations due to a condition they have. That makes them immunocompromised, meaning their immune system cannot develop the necessary antibodies to fight off infection, Dr. Iroku-Malize explains. “The community that's immune helps to protect the few individuals who are unable to get vaccinated,” she says. “If everyone who can get vaccinated does, then you help build up that immunity and you protect the community.” Getting your kids vaccinated can also prevent once-eradicated, life-threatening diseases — such as polio and measles — from popping up around your community. In total, parents play a huge part to protect their children's lives — and their community as a whole — from being disrupted by preventable diseases.
While there are many misconceptions surrounding vaccinations, one of the biggest ones Dr. Iroku-Malize encounters is that vaccines give people the illness that they’re supposed to be protecting them against. Dr. Iroku-Malize assures that this notion is merely a misinterpretation of the side effects of vaccines, which can mimic the illness' symptoms. When you receive a vaccination, it triggers your immune system to build up immunity and protect you against a particular disease. As your body is building up this immunity, Dr. Iroku-Malize notes that patients may feel some fatigue, get a little bit of a fever, or see some swelling or redness at the site of the injection. But these symptoms are mild and usually go away. “It's not the vaccine causing the illness; rather your vaccine is doing its job in building up the immune system,” she says.
If you have other concerns about vaccines, Dr. Iroku-Malize encourages you to speak with your family physician. Your doctor will consider your child’s unique medical history and provide information to help you make the best decision for your child’s health.
As we move into the season where respiratory infections spike, Dr. Iroku-Malize says we’re going to see growing rates of illnesses that are transmitted by air, such as the flu or respiratory syncytial virus infection (better known as RSV). “In this environment, we're going to have a mixture of the flu, we're going to have a mixture of COVID — because it still hasn't gone anywhere, it's still around — and we're going to have some other respiratory illnesses,” she says. To prepare for the season and minimize your child’s exposure to risk, Dr. Iroku-Malize says to get vaccinated — in particular, get routine flu and COVID vaccinations.
Outside of seasonal viruses, your school may have vaccine requirements for your children. To find out which vaccines may be required, ask a teacher or do a simple search on your school’s website. Besides getting the required vaccines, Dr. Iroku-Malize also encourages parents to talk to their family doctor about what vaccines are recommended for their child. Some of the vaccines may include: chickenpox, measles, or polio. Ultimately, the recommended vaccines will be based on your child’s specific medical history, age, and grade.
It's no secret that the pandemic disrupted people’s routines. And for some families, that may have meant missed doctor's appointments and, in turn, missed vaccines. Since children are still developing their immune systems, it’s especially important that parents take the appropriate measure to protect their kids from getting disease and boost their immunity that may fade over time. For those parents looking to get their kids back on track, Dr. Iroku-Malize says it's never to late to get vaccinated and encourages them to ask their family doctor about a catch-up schedule. “Don't hesitate,” she says. “Reach out to your family doc and we'll get you back on schedule.”
A catch-up schedule will help your child get the vaccines that they did not previously receive. Of course, the schedule will depend on your child’s age and the vaccines that they missed, but Dr. Iroku-Malize says that your physician will suggest a catch-up schedule that’s personalized to your child’s specific needs.
While your child is catching up on missed vaccines, Dr. Iroku-Malize says that you can protect them against the flu and COVID in the interim. “Don't forget, as you're doing the catch-up of other vaccines, you can still get vaccinated for the flu and COVID-19,” she says. But, if your child has already received the COVID-19 vaccination, ask your family physician if it’s time for a booster.
As a healthcare advocate and mother herself, Dr. Iroku-Malize is taking additional steps to keep her family safe, including: hand-washing, wearing masks in public places, having hand sanitizer on hand, and keeping a safe distance when appropriate. “Especially as people are going to be traveling with the holiday season coming up, it's very important that everyone stay protected,” she says.
Outside of getting your children vaccinated, Dr. Iroku-Malize says it’s critical that parents stay on top of their own health and safety. That means parents should remember to schedule their own vaccinations, too. “As you're taking care of your family, don't forget to take care of yourself,” she says. “Get your own flu vaccine, get your own COVID vaccine, and take measures to make sure you're healthy as well.”
For those still concerned about routine vaccines, Dr. Iroku-Malize encourages parents to visit their family physician with prepared questions and have an open conversation with their doctor. Parents can also continue to learn more about vaccines and immunizations for the whole family here.
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