Health officials pushing infant immunizations

A pertussis outbreak, including in Southwest Georgia, influences promotion of education on childhood vaccinations

ALBANY — Each year, thousands of children become ill from diseases that could have been prevented by basic childhood vaccinations, which makes protecting infants against the 14 vaccine-preventable diseases essential to ensuring their health.

Given the recent pertussis outbreak, which has impacted Southwest Georgia, this is a message officials have increased incentive to push.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Immunization Survey says that Georgia immunization rates for Tdap were below the national average, ranking the state 39th compared to other states. While the number of pertussis cases in 2013 for the state decreased from 2012, 54 were hospitalized and of those, 42 were infants less than a year old.

Georgia also saw one pertussis-related infant death reported in 2013. Recently, pertussis has primarily impacted Southwest Georgia in Colquitt, Mitchell and Thomas counties — an outbreak which has since started to taper.

“We are trying to get the word out because we have seen more pertussis in the last two years,” said Dr. Jacqueline Grant, director of the Southwest Public Health District.

Throughout National Infant Immunization Week, which ends Saturday, the Georgia Department of Public Health is encouraging parents and caregivers to talk to their pediatricians about their children’s vaccination schedule and ensure their infants are up-to-date on immunizations.

“Vaccinating your infant is the best way to protect them from serious illnesses like whooping cough and measles,” Steven Mitchell, director of the Georgia immunization program, said in a recent news release. “We urge parents to speak with their pediatrician or health care provider at every visit to make sure their infant is up-to-date on vaccinations.”

Since infants are not due for their first round of shots until they are two months old, it is vital that the adults around them get inoculated in order to develop what is known as a “herd immunity.”

“When you get a bulk (of a population) immunized, (other) people are protected,” said Grant. “Over the years, there has been a lot of success. (There has been) prevention of a lot of childhood-preventable diseases.

“With infants, their immune systems aren’t fully developed. What can cause a mild case in adults (can be more serious) in infants.”

Over the last couple of years, there have been seven infants in Southwest Georgia who have had pertussis. Of those, four were hospitalized and three required intensive care, Grant said.

Given the effects it can have, pregnant women are encouraged to be inoculated with every pregnancy during the third trimester to protect their unborn children.

“A baby’s first immunization is at two months. If the mother is not vaccinated, the baby is really vulnerable from birth to two months,” Grant said. “… The antibodies cross the placenta, and as those antibodies start to wane, that is about when the vaccine will kick in and become effective.”

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the week-long observance established to remind parents and caregivers how important it is to protect children against vaccine-preventable diseases through immunization. This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the Vaccines for Children (VFC) program, which helps provide vaccines to children whose parents or guardians may not be able to afford them and helps many more children have a better opportunity of getting their vaccines according to the recommended inoculation schedule.

The VFC Program contributed directly to a substantial increase in childhood immunization coverage levels nationally and made a significant contribution to the elimination of disparities in vaccination coverage among young children.