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Immunizations a Shot in the Arm for School Health

Immunizations a Shot in the Arm for School Health

Getting a shot in the arm is not for the squeamish, but it is a given at almost every school in America. Students are required to receive certain prescribed vaccinations, as much for their own good as for the good of other students around them.

Guidelines for school immunizations are not made at the federal level, per se, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Instead, it is up to each state to determine which vaccines will be administered at which grade level, although individual exceptions are granted such that the needs of the many don't always outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.

With a new school year already underway in some states, with all other states preparing to again throw open their doors in the next few weeks, immunizations are back atop to-do lists as parents and guardians hustle around town to get their kids' shots, and shot records, updated, as needed. Welcome to National Immunizations Awareness Month.

Says the CDC: "School-age children, from preschoolers to college students, need vaccines. Making sure that children receive all their vaccinations on time is one of the most important things you can do as a parent to ensure your children's long-term health—as well as the health of friends, classmates, and others in your community."

Parents unsure of their state's requirements for vaccinations, such as those who just moved in from out of state, are advised to check with their child's pediatrician, school or local health department for information. For children six and under, which includes pre-K through first or second grade, the CDC identifies 14 diseases for which kids need to be inoculated, some of them requiring multiple shots: chickenpox, diphtheria, Hib, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, flu, measles, mumps, pertussis (whooping cough), polio, pneumococcal, rotavirus, rubella and tetanus.

The list grows shorter as the child ages, although the importance of getting them doesn't. For 11-12-year-olds headed back to school, as well as teens, the CDC recommends HPV (to prevent infections that can cause cancer later in life), Tdap (booster shot for whooping cough) and meningococcal conjugate vaccine, all for continued protection.

Although most states don't require school students to get annual flu shots, the CDC strongly recommends them for all children ages six months and older, again, if not for themselves, then for those around them. As infectious disease experts have been known to say, according to time.com, "How do you prevent elderly people from dying from the flu? Immunize preschoolers." With that in mind, a requirement that preschool children receive the flu vaccination is now in effect in New York City. The expectation is that it will greatly reduce the risk of a widespread outbreak of influenza, a phenomenon referred to as 'herd immunity.'

"This is just part of being a good citizen and not hurting your neighbor," says Mayo Clinic medical professor Jon C. Tilburt, quoted at time.com. "It's good for your neighbor's kids, and it's good for Grandma."

The idea of schoolwide vaccinations is not without controversy. Many schools have instituted personal belief exemptions, whereby parents can opt their child/children out of required vaccinations on personal, moral or religious grounds. So, you say, what could possibly be wrong with that? Plenty, say some parents, concerned that kids unvaccinated by parental choice are, in effect, potential carriers of health hazards for other students in full compliance of immunization requirements.

Case in point: California parents Carl and Jodi Krawitt, whose first-grade, six-year-old son Rhett (as of January, 2015) has been fighting leukemia for five years. Even though Rhett is in remission, according to npr.org, his immune system is in rebuilding mode, making it unadvisable for him to be vaccinated for anything. Because Rhett attends a school district in Marin County, where more than 6 percent of children have the personal belief exemption, he conceivably is defenseless against communicable diseases carried by exempted students.

When pressed on the issue by NPR, Marin County health officer Matt Willis said if there ever were an outbreak of, say, measles in the county, the school district could mandate that unvaccinated children stay home, even without confirmed cases at any of the district's schools.

"In the interest of the health and safety of our children, can we have the assurance that all the kids at our schools are immunized?" Carl Krawitt asked.