August is National Immunization Awareness Month. As children prepare to return to school, it is important for them to receive nationally recommended vaccines against diseases such as measles. While reduced incidence of measles in the U.S. has led to widespread complacency about the disease, there were 118 reported cases of measles in this country from January 1 to May 20, 2011 according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Measles is a serious disease that spreads easily and can cause hospitalization and death. In fact, measles is one of the top 5 leading causes of death worldwide for children under the age of 5, according to statistics from the World Health Organization. While American children have access to life-saving vaccines through programs such as Vaccines for Children, access remains a major barrier throughout the rest of the world, especially the developing world.
Aside from access issues, infants under the age of 12 months are particularly vulnerable to measles due to immature immune systems and lack of vaccine protection. The vaccine against measles is recommended for children ages 12 months and older, and most infant vaccines are given at 2, 4, and 6 months of age, creating a “window of susceptibility” to infectious diseases.
In an opinion piece published in The Scientist this month, Dr. Ofer Levy argues that to protect infants from deadly diseases, more vaccines should be administered at birth because it is the single most reliable point of health care contact worldwide. Vaccination at birth would increase immunization rates and reduce the “window of susceptibility” to infectious diseases among infants. However, only 3 vaccines are currently licensed for immunization at birth. He states, “Although there are several challenges in developing vaccines for newborns and infants, proof-of-concept exists that this approach can be safe and effective and represents a promising strategy to reduce infant mortality.”
Vaccines are one of the greatest public health achievements in history. As research and technology continue to progress, there will be important new developments in vaccines and their delivery. However, to fully realize the benefits of vaccines, it is important that we achieve high levels of immunization in our schools and communities.