Are Parents Too Busy to Save Their Kids’ Lives?

More than 20 percent of kids in this country are underimmunized, and often the reason is a missed doctor’s appointment.

May 5, 2009

Vaccinations save kids' lives, but parents sometimes miss the appointments.

05-06-09 RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 14 million cases of disease and 33,500 premature deaths are prevented over the course of a lifetime for each group of children that gets vaccinated each year. That adds up to a savings of $43.3 billion in disease-related costs. Still, about 23 percent of this country’s children are underimmunized, meaning they don’t get the protective vaccinations they need, according to research presented yesterday at the annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies. The surprise: The biggest reason for skipped shots isn’t ideological opposition to vaccination, but simple scheduling problems.

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THE DETAILS: Researchers interviewed parents of 705 children 3 years old or younger about their experiences with immunization visits. They found that 20 percent of parents had missed at least one of their child’s appointments, with the primary reasons being difficulty scheduling or rescheduling appointments, doubting the importance of a vaccine, or problems communicating with their child’s doctor. Needing to reschedule visits made parents almost four times as likely to miss the appointment altogether, while doubting a vaccine’s importance made them three times as likely to miss it. Communication problems—not getting information from the doctor about why vaccines are important or how they work—made parents three times as likely to miss an appointment.

WHAT IT MEANS: Every family is crazy-busy these days, but not making vaccination appointments a priority puts your child’s health at risk—as well as the health of his or her playmates. “Vaccination is probably the most important tool for public health,” says the study’s lead author Melissa Stockwell, MD, MPH, medical director of the New York-Presbyterian Hospital Immunization Registry and a pediatrician at New York-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital. “Parents who don’t get kids vaccinated may rely on the disease not being around in their communities, but from a public health point of view, people have to take responsibility.” After all, the more families who don’t get vaccinated, the more likely it becomes that a serious disease could gain a foothold in your community.

To make sure your kids don’t fall into the ranks of the underimmunized, here are a few ways to keep them healthy:

• Make vaccines a priority. “Some families are underimmunized because they have a lot of other competing priorities in their life,” says Dr. Stockwell. Move vaccination appointments to the top of the list. Especially do whatever it takes to make it to the original appointment, since having to reschedule raises the odds that you’ll end up not following through. Download a vaccination schedule from the CDC’s website and keep it on your fridge as a reminder.

• Talk to your doctor. There’s a lot of misinformation out there about vaccinations. While Dr. Stockwell’s survey didn’t find that a large number of parents undervalued immunizations, some parents may be concerned about links between autism and MMR vaccines, and recent outbreaks of mumps and measles suggest that parents are opting out of those immunizations. There’s no scientific evidence pointing to a vaccine-autism link; however, if you are concerned about a vaccine’s side effects, talk about it with your doctor, she says.

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