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Infant Immunization: The Building Blocks of Early Childhood Health

April 24, 2012

Pediatrician Talks About How Preventive Medicine Keeps Kids Healthy From the Start

Dr. Swetha Kowsik, a pediatrician with Washington Township Medical Foundation, says one of her top priorities is preventive medicine, particularly through immunization - because it not only keeps her patients well, but also helps to cultivate a strong relationship between her, parents, and patients.

National Infant Immunization Week, observed April 21-28 this year, is a great time to learn more about what Dr. Kowsik calls "the most important preventative measure parents can take for their child's health."

"Immunizations have revolutionized health care and helped keep children healthy for so many years," she explains. "Beyond the health care benefits, immunizations are a vital part of a pediatrician's practice, because they facilitate education and communication between the pediatrician, parent, and patient.

"Families are asked to return multiple times for vaccinations - especially in the first year of life - so it is a way to foster a relationship between them and their health care provider. Each time a child comes in for vaccinations, it is an opportunity for the physician to educate the family."

Dr. Kowsik points out that pediatricians are experts in treating children after they have acquired an illness, but she says prevention is always better.

"While our training allows us to treat children after they have acquired an illness, we have also been taught to equally - if not more - emphasize preventative medicine," she says. "The value of preventative medicine is that you often cannot predict whether a unique individual will have a mild or severe reaction to an illness, and prevention can avoid that."

Despite a long history of vaccines eradicating deadly and debilitating diseases - such as smallpox - Dr. Kowsik says many parents today question the necessity of immunization for illnesses like chickenpox, which might have seemed like a mild childhood illness.

"Every year before the chickenpox vaccine was introduced in 1995, 10,000 children were hospitalized and 70 children died," she notes, adding that vaccinating for chickenpox can help to protect the entire family. "Even if a child with chickenpox is having a mild reaction, they can always pass it on to their elderly grandparent with a weak immune system, who could have a much more serious reaction."

More recently, according to Dr. Kowsik, community resistance to pertussis - whooping cough - began to decline. A highly contagious disease, whooping cough is transmitted through direct contact with fluids from the nose or mouth of infected people.

"In 2010, endemic levels of whopping cough were reached in California, resulting in 10 infant deaths. After this, a law was created requiring children entering seventh and 12th grades to show proof of a booster for pertussis before starting school. This booster is the Tdap vaccine, which covers tetanus, diptheria, and pertussis."

She also cites another recent outbreak of "mumps," a disease that is spread from person-to-person by respiratory droplets or by direct contact with items that have been contaminated with infected saliva. It causes painful swelling of the salivary glands and can also cause painful swelling of testicles.

"On an international trip, a student at UC Berkeley obtained the virus that causes mumps, resulting in around 30 to 40 cases on campus," Dr. Kowsik says, adding that these cases and others illustrate the fact that vaccine-preventable diseases are not as "far away" as they may seem - and can remain a threat if people don't continue to vaccinate.

Early childhood immunization also serves as a vital opportunity for parent education and is a good time for parents to talk openly with their child's pediatrician.

"For parents, the number of visits for vaccinations, the variety of combined versus single vaccines, and the number of diseases covered by the vaccinations can seem very intimidating," Dr. Kowsik says. "The best way to stay on top of this is to communicate with your pediatrician - ask all of the questions you need to, and as often as you need to."

The Internet is teeming with resources regarding vaccinations, according to Dr. Kowsik. However, some of these sources can be misleading and confusing. She says some of the best Web sites to refer to regarding vaccinations are:

  • www.cdc.gov/vaccines/
  • www.healthychildren.org (developed by the American Academy of Pediatrics)
  • www.who.int/en/ (for a global perspective on vaccine-preventable diseases)

Additionally, she cautions parents to be wary of invalid or misleading research surrounding early childhood vaccinations, and she urges parents to have an open conversation with their child's pediatrician before making any conclusions.

"Many of the concerns regarding the link between autism and vaccination were due to a paper published in 1998 - which has now been formally retracted - by a British physician whose medical license has been taken away," she points out. "On further investigation, it was found that this physician falsified his data, and no link has been found between autism and vaccines."

"Because of this one study and physician, so many children were affected - vaccination rates dropped steeply and cases of vaccine preventable diseases such as measles went up."

She says the misconception also persists because of the timing between some childhood vaccinations and the first appearance of symptoms of autism. In addition, the diagnostic criteria for autism have been improved, allowing physicians to diagnose more children and to diagnose them earlier with autism, according to Dr. Kowsik.

Ultimately, she says vaccines are scientifically proven to prevent diseases that have caused so much harm and pain to children throughout the years.

"For the temporary pinch of a vaccine needle, children are granted years of protection from deadly diseases. It is our duty as pediatricians to care for our patients, and immunizing is one of the best ways of doing so."

Your health care, your way

For more information about Washington Township Medical Foundation and its more than 60 board-certified physicians with expertise in a broad range of medical specialties - from neurosurgery to pediatrics - visit www.mywtmf.com.