February 14, 2012
By Claire McCarthy, M.D.
Boston Children's Hospital
Patients ask me all the time (usually as we are putting band-aids on their arms after shots), "Will I get a shot next year?"
And the answer I have to give them is, "I don't know."
Vaccination is an evolving science. We learn more every day about how to make new and better vaccines. And when to give them so that they have the best effect.
Sometimes we add new vaccines or boosters to old ones. Sometimes a better version has been invented that replaces an old vaccine.
At the beginning of each year, the American Academy of Pediatrics announces any changes. This year, there are three changes:
- The Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine is now officially recommended for boys. There has been a lot of talk about this, but now it's official. This change will protect women by decreasing the chance that they will get HPV from their partners. It will also help prevent genital warts and cancer in men. This is particularly important for men who have sex with men, as HPV is a major cause of anal cancer.
Some parents feel strange about giving this vaccine to their children, because HPV is a sexually transmitted disease. I always stress to parents that giving this vaccine does not mean you are saying it's okay for them to go and have sex of any kind. Giving this vaccine is about preventing cancer. If we can do that in any small way for our children, it seems to me that we should. The vaccine is given to boys in three doses, as with girls, starting as early as age 9.
- The meningococcal vaccine (Menactra) can be given as early as age 9 months, and a booster dose is recommended. Meningococcus is a bacteria that can cause a sudden, serious and sometimes fatal illness. It's most common in adolescents ages 16 to 21, especially those who share living spaces, such as a dormitory.
We routinely give the vaccine to children at age 11 to 12. But because it's very safe and protects against a very serious illness, it can now be given to much younger children who travel to places with lots of meningococcal illness, or who have health problems (such as complement deficiency disorder or asplenia) that put them at higher risk of getting meningococcal disease.
If you are traveling or your child has a problem with his or her immune system, check with your doctor to see if your child needs the vaccine. Experts are also recommending a booster dose for additional protection. (The timing of the booster dose depends on when the first was given. Check with your doctor.)
- The recommendations for how many flu shots young children should get has been clarified. The recommendation has always been, and still is, that children ages 6 months to 8 years should get two doses of the flu shot the first season they get it. But it wasn't clear if a child who only got one dose that first season needed one or two doses the second season. Now we have an answer: If a child only got one shot the first year, he doesn't need to get two the second year. This doesn't mean that your child can skip that second dose the first time around! He will be better protected that season with both shots.
For more information on vaccine schedules (and anything and everything else about vaccines), visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's vaccination page.
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Claire McCarthy, M.D., a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications, is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. She is an attending physician and Medical Communications Editor at Children's Hospital Boston.