The Unvaccinated Child

We know that your unvaccinated child is not healthier than vaccinated children.

And we know that among pediatric flu deaths, most are unvaccinated.

What else do we know about unvaccinated children?

Who’s Who Among Unvaccinated Children

Many children with cancer and other medical conditions benefit from herd immunity.
Many children with cancer and other medical conditions have medical exemptions to getting vaccinated and benefit from herd immunity. (CC BY 2.0)

Although it seems like unvaccinated kids all get grouped together, it is important to remember that not all unvaccinated kids are intentionally unvaccinated.

Some are too young to be vaccinated or fully vaccinated, some have medical exemptions, usually to just one or a few vaccines, and sometimes just temporary, and some have skipped or delayed one or more vaccines because of a lack of access to health care.

Whatever the reason, they are all at risk because they are unvaccinated.

The intentionally unvaccinated child poses the bigger risk though, because they tend to cluster together and are more likely to be either completely unvaccinated or to have skipped multiple vaccines. A child with a medical exemption because she is getting chemotherapy, on the other hand, very likely lives with a family who is completely vaccinated and protected. Similarly, a child with an allergy to a vaccine likely isn’t missing multiple vaccines.

Risks to the Unvaccinated Child

Of course, the main risk to the unvaccinated child is that they will get a potentially life-threatening vaccine-preventable disease.

While many vaccine-preventable diseases are no longer endemic in the United States and other developed countries, they have not been eradicated.

People do still get vaccine-preventable diseases in the United States.

And tragically, people do still die of vaccine-preventable diseases in the United States.

Can’t you just hide in the herd, depending on everyone else to be vaccinated and protected to keep these diseases away from your unvaccinated child? While that ends up being what happens most of the time, as there are no real alternatives to getting vaccinated, that strategy doesn’t always work. And it is a gamble that’s not worth taking and won’t keep working if more parents skip or delay getting their kids vaccinated.

Risks of the Unvaccinated Child to Everyone Else

Unvaccinated kids are also a risk to those around them, as they are more likely to get sick with a vaccine-preventable disease, since they have no immunity. No, they are not an instant danger if they don’t actually have a vaccine-preventable disease, but since you can be contagious a few days before you have symptoms, you are not always going to know when your child is sick and a risk to others.

Why does that matter if everyone else is vaccinated and immune?

Well, obviously, everyone else is not vaccinated and immune, including those with medical exemptions and those who are too young to be vaccinated. And since vaccines aren’t perfect, some people who are vaccinated can still get sick.

That’s why it is critical that if your unvaccinated child is sick or was exposed to someone who is sick, you are sure to:

  • notify health professionals about your child’s immunization status before seeking medical attention, as they will likely want to take precautions to keep you from exposing others to very contagious diseases like measles, mumps, and pertussis
  • follow all appropriate quarantine procedures that may have been recommended, which often extends up to 21 days after the last time you were exposed to someone with a vaccine-preventable disease
  • seek medical attention, as these are not mild diseases and they can indeed be life-threatening, even in this age of modern medicine

Hopefully you will think about all of these risks before your unvaccinated child has a chance to sick.

Getting Your Unvaccinated Child Caught Up

Fortunately, many unvaccinated kids do eventually get caught up on their vaccines.

It may be that they had a medical exemption that was just temporary and they are now cleared to get fully vaccinated.

Or they might have had parents who were following a non-standard, parent-selected, delayed protection vaccine schedule, but they have now decided to get caught up to attend daycare or school.

Others get over their fears as they get further educated about vaccines and vaccine myths and decide to get caught up and protected.

Is it ever too late to get vaccinated?

Actually it is.

In addition to the fact that your child might have already gotten sick with a particular vaccine preventable diseases, some vaccines are only given to younger kids.

For example, you have to be less than 15 weeks old to start the rotavirus vaccine. And you should get your final dose before 8 months. That means that if you decide to start catching up your fully unvaccinated infant at 9 months, then you won’t be able to get him vaccinated and protected against rotavirus disease. Similarly, Hib vaccine isn’t usually given to kids who are aged 5 years or older and Prevnar to kids who are aged 6 years or older, unless they are in a  high risk group.

Still, you will be able to get most vaccines. And using combination vaccines, you should be able to decrease the number of individual shots your child needs to get caught up. An accelerated schedule using minimum age intervals is also available if you need to get caught up quickly.

You should especially think about getting quickly caught up if there is an outbreak in your area or if you are thinking about traveling out of the country, as many vaccine-preventable diseases are still endemic in other parts of the world.

What to Know About The Unvaccinated Child

The main things to understand about the unvaccinated child is that they aren’t healthier than other kids, are just at more risk for getting a vaccine preventable disease, and should get caught up on their vaccines as soon as possible.

More on The Unvaccinated Child

One thought on “The Unvaccinated Child

  1. The reason there’s a time limit on some vaccinations is because they’re no longer dangerous after the cutoff age. Rotavirus isn’t dangerous to children in developed countries: it’s usually just diarrhea for up to ten days, and as long as the child stays well-hydrated, there’s no danger. In the worst cases, he can be given IV fluids at a hospital. But it’s only babies in any danger at all from it.

    Hib meningitis is usually only dangerous in the rare case when it becomes invasive in a child between six and eighteen months old. Before that the child is protected by the mother’s antibodies, and after that the child has matured enough that his immune system can take on the infection. Most children have developed immunity to Hib disease by subclinical infection by the age of five years old.

    Pertussis is only dangerous in a few of the cases in which it (rarely) occurs in young infants. Most fatalities occur in newborns under four months old: after that, their airways have developed enough to handle coughing up the mucus in their lungs. It is no longer a dangerous disease for any but a few of the youngest newborns, one in 200 newborns under three months old may die if they get it. The rest recover. But of course you can (foolishly) get the pertussis vaccine at any age.

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