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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

A Parent's Life A Parent's Life

To Keep Kids Healthy, Adults Need Immunizations, Too!

August 13, 2012

By Claire McCarthy

Boston Children's Hospital

If you really want to help keep your kids healthy, get immunized.

More and more, this is the message that public health officials are sending out to parents and others who care for children. And it's a message that people really need to listen to.

We're trying to create something called herd immunity. When enough people are immunized against a disease, it becomes uncommon — simply because the immunized people can't catch it. And when it's uncommon, then it obviously decreases the chance that someone who isn't immunized will get infected.

Herd immunity is particularly important because it helps to protect:

  • Small children, especially infants, who either are too young to be immunized or haven't had enough doses to be fully protected.
  • People, especially children, who have problems with their immune systems, many of whom can't get vaccines, and all of whom are more susceptible to infections.

Herd immunity works when enough people are immunized. But the "enough" is the tricky part. We've been hearing in the news about outbreaks of pertussis (whooping cough) and measles. Many of these outbreaks are happening in parts of the country where immunization rates are low because of worry about vaccines. Sadly, this worry is mostly unwarranted. We have even seen babies die, which is tragic.

Many people are working hard to not only ensure the safety of vaccines, but educate all parents about the safety and importance of vaccinations. In the meantime, if you are a parent or someone who takes care of or works with children, here's what you can do to help:

    • Get a TdaP vaccine. Most importantly, this protects you against pertussis (whooping cough). It also protects you against tetanus and diphtheria, both of which you'd rather not get. While pertussis in adults is usually just an annoying uncomfortable cough that goes away, it can be life-threatening in infants or children with immune problems.
    • Get a yearly flu shot. These are widely available every flu season, even at the local drugstore. The vaccine is safe (it will not give you the flu, no matter what your neighbor tells you). Not only will you be protecting yourself, you will help protect everyone in your community from influenza. Every year, influenza claims lives — and sends thousands of people to hospitals.
    • Make sure you've had all of your other vaccines. Check with your doctor and review your immunization record. Some adults may not be fully protected against measles, for example.

Not only will you help keep yourself healthy, you could literally save lives. So be a hero. Get immunized.

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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.

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