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Vaccines and the Illnesses They Prevent

National Immunization Awareness Month is observed in August, at the start of the new school year. Immunizations are part of routine wellness care and protect children and those around them from dangerous diseases, many of which can lead to serious illness and even death. Whether your child heads off to a classroom, does distance learning, or is on a hybrid schedule this year, immunizations are still required by law.

Which Vaccines Are Needed?

There are recommended schedules for childhood immunizations in the state of California, including for the following age groups:

  • Babies and young children:
    • 2 months—DTaP, Hepatitis B, Hib, PCV, Polio, RV
    • 4 months—DTaP, Hepatitis B, Hib, PCV, Polio, RV
    • 6 months—DTaP, Hepatitis B, Hib, PCV, Polio, RV, and seasonal flu
    • 12 months—Hepatitis A, Hib, MMR, PCV, Varicella, and seasonal flu
    • 15 months—DTaP and seasonal flu
    • 18 months—Hepatitis A and seasonal flu
    • Before kindergarten—Polio, DTaP, MMR, Varicella, and seasonal flu
  • Preteens and Adolescents:
    • 11-12 years: DTaP, HPV, Meningococcal (groups ACWY), and seasonal flu
    • 16 years: Meningococcal (groups ACWY), Meningococcal (group B), and seasonal flu

Students entering public colleges and universities also must meet immunization requirements in order to be fully enrolled. Have your students check with their school’s health services department for what immunizations are necessary as a condition of enrollment.

What Do the Abbreviations Mean and What Illnesses Do Vaccines Prevent?

The list of immunizations may look like alphabet soup, so here is a breakdown of what the abbreviations mean and the illnesses the vaccines prevent:

  • DTaP—Diphtheria, Tetanus, and Pertussis (Whooping Cough):
    • Diphtheria is a highly contagious infection by a bacterium that causes inflammation of the mucous membranes, formation of a false membrane in the throat that blocks breathing and swallowing, and potentially fatal damage to the heart and nerves.
    • Tetanus is not spread from person to person but is found in soil, dust, and manure that enter the body through breaks in the skin from cuts or puncture wounds. Symptoms include jaw cramping, muscle spasms, trouble swallowing, fever, and changes in heart rate. Left unchecked, it can lead to pneumonia, clots in the arteries and lungs, and even broken bones.
    • Pertussis (Whooping Cough) is a highly contagious respiratory disease and is known for its uncontrollable, violent coughing, making it hard to breath. The deep breaths needed to recover from coughing spells make a “whooping” sound. Pertussis can be very serious and even lethal to babies under one year old.
  • Hepatitis A: Hepatitis A is a serious liver disease and is spread by close personal contact with an infected person or when a person unknowingly ingests the virus from objects, food, and drinks. Symptoms include fatigue, lack of appetite, stomach pain, nausea, and jaundice that can last several weeks. In rare cases, Hepatitis A can lead to liver failure and death in people over 50.
  • Hepatitis B: Hepatitis B is a liver infection caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV) that is spread through bodily fluids. Newly infected people may not show symptoms, but those who do may experience fatigue, lack of appetite, stomach pain, nausea, and jaundice. Hepatitis B can be short term or lead to chronic infection and life-threatening health issues, like cirrhosis or liver cancer.
  • Hib: “Hib” stands for Haemophilus influenzae type b. It is a bacterium that can cause mild reactions, like ear infections and bronchitis, or serious infections such as pneumonia, bloodstream infections, meningitis, epiglottitis (swelling in the throat), cellulitus (skin infection), and infectious arthritis. Long-term problems or death can result if untreated.
  • HPV: “HPV” is the abbreviation for human papillomavirus, a common virus that can lead to cancer. Nearly one in four Americans, or 80 million people, are infected with HPV, with 14 million new cases, including in teenagers, occurring annually. HPV is sexually transmitted and can lead to cervical cancer as well as cancer of the sex organs, the anus, and the back of the throat.
  • Meningococcal ACWY: Meningococcal ACWY vaccine protects against meningococcal disease caused by the serogroups ACWY, which are certain strains of the bacteria. Meningococcal disease, which is highly contagious, can cause meningitis, which is an infection of the brain and spinal cord, as well as infections of the blood. Even when treated, meningococcal disease kills 10 to 15 percent of those infected, and it is a rapidly occurring death. Of those who survive, about 10 to 20 percent will suffer severe disabilities, including hearing loss, brain damage, kidney damage, loss of limbs, problems with the nervous system, or severe scarring from skin grafts.
  • Meningococcal B: Meningococcal B vaccine helps protect against the B serogroup of meningococcal disease. Meningococcal disease is highly contagious and can cause meningitis, an infection of the lining of the brain and spinal cord that can cause death within as little as a few hours or days in 10 to 15 percent of those infected. Permanent brain damage, hearing loss, kidney damage, loss of limbs, nervous system problems, and severe scarring occur in up to 20 percent of survivors.
  • MMR—Measles, Mumps, and Rubella: The MMR vaccine contains a weakened live virus and protects against measles, mumps, and rubella. Until vaccines for these diseases were created and widely distributed in the 1960s, most children would suffer from the diseases. Outbreaks of all three diseases still occur in the United States and worldwide. They are all contagious viral infections.
    • Measles (rubeola) causes fever, dry cough, runny nose, sore throat, inflamed eyes, sores inside the mouth, and a skin rash made up of large, flat blotches that spread over the entire body. People with measles are contagious up to four days before the rash appears. Measles can lead to ear infections; bronchitis, laryngitis, or croup; pneumonia, and encephalitis, plus problems such as preterm labor, low birth weight, and maternal death for women who acquire it during pregnancy.
    • Mumps primarily affects the salivary glands, located near the ears. Symptoms include pain in the swollen salivary glands on one or both sides of the face, fever, headache, muscle aches, weakness and fatigue, and loss of appetite. Complications include hearing loss.
    • Rubella, also referred to as German measles or three-day measles, causes a distinctive red rash and is caused by a different virus than measles. Rubella tends to be a mild illness, with such symptoms as mild fever, headache, stuffy or runny nose, inflamed eyes, enlarged lymph nodes in the back of the head and neck, joint pain, and a fine, pink rash that starts in the face and spreads to the trunk, arms, and legs. Serious problems can occur for babies of mothers who become infected during pregnancy.
  • PCV: “PCV” stands for pneumococcal vaccine, which prevents diseases caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria, invasive germs that cause ear and sinus infections, lung infections, bloodstream infections, and meningitis, an infection of the tissue covering the brain and spinal cord. Pneumococcal meningitis can lead to death or cause long-term hearing loss and developmental delays.
  • Polio is a contagious viral illness that can lead to paralysis, difficulty breathing, and sometimes death. Most people with polio do not realize they are ill because they do not experience symptoms. Still, they can pass the disease on to others. Symptoms can last up to 10 days and include fever, sore throat, headache, vomiting, fatigue, muscle weakness and pain, and stiffness in the neck, back, arms, or legs. The most serious form of polio is paralytic polio, whose symptoms are the same as nonparalytic polio but, within a week, can lead to loss of reflexes, severe muscle aches or weakness, and loose and floppy limbs. Post-polio syndrome is a group of physically disabling symptoms that can affect people years after they acquire polio.
  • RV: “RV” stands for rotavirus vaccine, which helps prevent a virus that is easily spread and results in severe watery diarrhea, dehydration, lethargy, vomiting, fever, and abdominal pain. Rotavirus kills 215,000 children worldwide each year.
  • Varicella (Chickenpox): Varicella, commonly called chickenpox, is a highly contagious disease caused by varicella-zoster virus (VZV). It causes an itchy, blister-like rash that starts on the chest, back, and face before spreading over the entire body. The varicella vaccine became available in the United States in 1995, before which time the disease was extremely common. Certain groups of people should avoid the vaccine (pregnant women, people with HIV/AIDS, people undergoing cancer treatments, people who recently had an infusion, and people using steroids and other treatments for immune system disorders), but it is recommended to prevent complications of varicella such as bacterial infections, dehydration, pneumonia, encephalitis, toxic shock syndrome, Reye’s syndrome, and even death.

Risks from Vaccines

Vaccines are designed to prevent disease. The germs contained in vaccines are the same ones that cause illness, but they have been either killed or weakened so much that they cannot make a person sick. Once in the body, the vaccines stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies against the disease intruder, making people unable to acquire the disease if they are exposed to it in the future.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), any vaccine can cause side effects, but they typically are minor, like a sore arm, redness at the injection site, tiredness, or low-grade fever. Possible but unlikely reactions can include seizures, lowered consciousness, dizziness, allergic reactions, and life-threatening infections. Furthermore, the CDC states that there is no link between the ingredients in childhood vaccines and autism. For more information see Vaccine Safety: Autism on the CDC website.

Vaccines are continually monitored for safety, and the risk of not immunizing is much higher than the potential side effects a vaccine poses. Parents with concerns should discuss the risk of immunizations with their child’s doctor.



Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Haemophilus influenzae Disease, https://www.cdc.gov/hi-disease/about/diagnosis-treatment.html; CDC, Hepatitis A VIS, https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/hcp/vis/vis-statements/hep-a.html; CDC, Human Papillomavirus (HPV) https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd/hpv/; CDC, Meningococcal ACWY VIS, https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/hcp/vis/vis-statements/mening.html#:~:text=Meningococcal%20ACWY%20vaccine%20can%20help,help%20protect%20against%20serogroup%20B; CDC, Pertussis (Whooping Cough) https://www.cdc.gov/pertussis/index.html; CDC, Pneumococcal Disease, https://www.cdc.gov/pneumococcal/about/infection-types.html; CDC, Possible Side Effects from Vaccines, https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vac-gen/side-effects.htm; CDC, Rotavirus, https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd/rotavirus/index.html; CDC, Serogroup B Meningococcal (MenB) VIS, https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/hcp/vis/vis-statements/mening-serogroup.html; CDC, Tetanus, https://www.cdc.gov/tetanus/about/symptoms-complications.html; CDC, Vaccines and Preventable Diseases, https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd/dtap-tdap-td/public/index.html; CDC, Viral Hepatitis, https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/hbv/index.htm; CDC, Whooping Cough, https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd/pertussis/index.html; Mayo Clinic, Chickenpox, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/chickenpox/symptoms-causes/syc-20351282; Mayo Clinic, Measles, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/measles/symptoms-causes/syc-20374857; Mayo Clinic, Mumps, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mumps/symptoms-causes/syc-20375361; Mayo Clinic, Polio, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/polio/symptoms-causes/syc-20376512; Mayo Clinic, Rubella, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/rubella/symptoms-causes/syc-20377310;

Graphics: cdc.gov, https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/events/niam/graphics.html

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