NJ Doctors Prescribe Back-to-School Vaccinations for Teens

Annie Knox | September 4, 2012 | Health Care
Immunizations that kids get in childhood can start to weaken and wear off by middle school

Families running back-to-school errands have a crucial item to check off the list: vaccinations for their teens.

September checkups are a chance for middle school and high school students to receive boosters and catch up on childhood vaccinations they may have missed, say New Jersey doctors. Those checkups are also an opportunity to get adolescent vaccines, including those for bacterial meningitis, HPV, and pertussis, — commonly called “whooping cough.”

The whooping cough vaccine also guards against tetanus and diphtheria. But its protection for middle-schoolers who received the vaccine as small kids can start to wear off, said Larry Frenkel, co-chair of the New Jersey Immunization Network

“In the last 10 years,” Frenkel said, “we’ve come to realize that the immunizations from the childhood vaccines from these three bacteria has waned by the time they get to be 11 or 12.”

Those children act as carriers of the bacteria, he said, and can put at risk other children who have not received the immuniztion or who are young too young to do so.

“Pertussis is a disease that can kill,” he said. “Babies, they can die of brain damage, of lung damage. It’s a pretty horrible disease.”

In Hunterdon County, 50 people fell sick with whooping cough during the 2011-2012 school year, compared with eight people who caught the disease during the previous school year, according to the county. In New Jersey schools, students entering grade six are required to have had the whooping cough and the meningococcal vaccines.

A decade ago, youngsters leaving the doctor’s office after getting the pertussis vaccine often complained of sore arms, said Dr. Peter Wenger, an expert on immunizations at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) in Newark. To reduce that soreness, doctors began giving youngsters a pertussis vaccine with fewer strains of the diseases. The reduced versions of the vaccine do not afford as much protection, Wenger said. And that, he added, is why childrens’ immunity to pertussis can weaken once they reach middle school.

“Now, it’s really important to immunize throughout the ages,” Wenger said. “It’s not just for kids anymore.”

Like new sneakers and spiral notebooks, Wenger said, immunizations are a no-brainer for students returning to school. But they can be a hard sell for parents of younger children, he noted.
Those parents may resist vaccinations for their children, he said; they have not seen the outbreaks of diseases that are familiar to older generations, such as polio and diptheria.

For example, he said, “when’s the last person you saw with measles?” Vaccines have wiped out those diseases for the most part, according to Wenger said. But he warned they could reemerge among unvaccinated communities.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • In New Jersey, almost three out of four teens ages 13-17 received the complete series — three shots — of the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine in 2010. That’s about 2 percent higher than the national average.
  • Sixty-nine percent of teens in New Jersey received the pertussis vaccine in 2010, about one percent above the national average.
  • Some New Jersey parents are calling for doctors to ease up when it comes to vaccinating children. “We’re vaccinating with a vaccine that’s not protecting [children from pertussis], said Sue Collins, the cofounder of the New Jersey Alliance for Informed Choice in Vaccination (NJAICV). “So why are we continuing to add more shots, injecting toxic ingredients into children?”

    For families seeking information about the risks of vaccinating, the key is to speak to a physician first, said Dr. Geralyn Prosswimmer, a Hunterdon County pediatrician. That discussion, she said, is an opportunity to hear about the disease the vaccine aims to prevent and the risks and benefits of the vaccine. The best decision, she counsels, is to vaccinate.

    Information from sources that are not credible often frightens parents, Prosswimmer said. “It takes a lot to undo fear that comes from bad information,” she said, referencing a British study that linked early childhood vaccines to autism and has since been redacted.

    Some patients suffer side effects and allergic reactions to vaccines, acknowledged Wenger. But, he said, the risk of those adverse reactions is worth the protection that immunizations offer. “Vaccines are a vigilant program,” he said. We’ve been doing a pretty good job.” But, he cautioned, “nothing in life and in medicine is 100 per cent.”