How we can all help protect babies with immunizations

How we can all help protect babies with immunizations

Harvard Health Blog

When you are pregnant, what you hear from people around you makes a difference. You want to do the right thing for your child; if someone you trust gives you advice, you listen.

That’s why we need to be sure that pregnant women get good advice.

In a study published in the journal Pediatrics, researchers in New Zealand found that when pregnant women got discouraging information about immunization, only 57 percent of them immunized their children on time. That means that almost half of them did not.

When the women got both encouraging and discouraging information about immunization, 61 percent immunized their children on time; that number went up to 71 percent when they got only encouraging information. So still not perfect — just over two-thirds — but better.

In this study of more than 6,000 women, health care providers gave encouraging information 100 percent of the time (for dietitians and nutritionists, that number was 40 percent; for alternative health care providers, it was 18 percent). The main source of discouraging information? Family and friends.

But here is the part of this study that is most concerning: 56 percent of the women, more than half, got no information about immunization at all.

Vaccines work. The rates of the diseases they prevent, many of which can be deadly, are at historical lows. This is something that actually has begun to work against vaccines; diseases like measles, or polio, or meningitis, or epiglottitis caused by the bacteria Haemophilus influenzae, have become rare enough that many people don’t think of them as real, let alone a threat. But they are real, and especially in a global society where both people and their diseases can easily travel, they are a threat.

All medical treatments have side effects, and vaccines are no exception. But the risks are small. The risks from a vaccine are always smaller than the risks of the diseases they prevent, a fact that often gets lost in the discussion.

This study should mostly be a wake-up call to health care providers, who clearly need to do a better job of getting information about the benefits of immunization to pregnant women. But it also points out that every single one of us can make a difference, by getting the word out.

The majority of American children are fully immunized, yet it’s the parents who choose not to immunize who are more vocal. That needs to change — especially because studies clearly show that when it comes to health information, the opinions of friends and family really do matter.

So speak up. If you have vaccinated your children, talk with your friends about it; especially your friends who are pregnant or thinking about having a baby. Tell them why you chose to do it. Talk about your experience. Encourage them to vaccinate their child.

You could quite literally save a life.

(Claire McCarthy, M.D., is faculty editor of Harvard Health Publications.)