Vaccines Boost Body's Defense System

March 1, 2017

While there is ongoing debate about whether to vaccinate children, the Middlesex Health System recognizes the importance of vaccines and continues to encourage parents to protect their children.

Vaccines keep us healthy and teach the immune system how to fight illnesses that can cause significant illness or death, says Dr. Cliff O’Callahan, pediatric faculty and director of nurseries at Middlesex Hospital. Dr. O’Callahan likens vaccines to a vitamin or other supplement that someone takes to boost their body’s defense system – except they are better. Vaccines boost a particular part of the body’s defense system in very specific and powerful ways that are scientifically proven to be more beneficial than any vitamin or supplement, he says.

Dr. O’Callahan, who has practiced medicine around the world, says that most young parents have not experienced what life was like when people were paralyzed by polio or got encephalitis after having the measles. They never saw someone hospitalized for having the chickenpox or continuously coughing for two to three months because of the whooping cough. Due in large part to vaccinations, the spread of these diseases is eradicated, or very limited, and that has changed our global health system.

“Vaccines have undoubtedly transformed our world from one in which illnesses very commonly killed people,” Dr. O’Callahan says. “We can see that when we walk in old Connecticut cemeteries and see the ages listed on the grave stones. Vaccines have changed that. They continue to be vital even in an age when we have significantly improved hygiene and nutrition.”

Dr. O’Callahan says the goal is to administer vaccines before a person would likely encounter certain diseases and when the body is capable of creating that protection. For example, young children receive a series of vaccines and then receive a few additional doses to increase the likelihood that their immune system will fight off infancy diseases, such as pneumonia and meningitis. Adolescents receive the human papilloma virus vaccine at ages 11 or 12 – well before they start to have sex – because once they have a few partners their likelihood of contracting the virus increases, as does their risk of cervix, anus or throat cancers.

Parents should discuss what vaccinations their children need and when they need them with their pediatrician or family practice doctor. Some families may not want to vaccinate, or may want an alternate vaccine schedule, and Dr. O’Callahan says the Hospital works with them, engaging them in a very open and frank discussion about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines from both scientific and personal and parental points of view.

“Our belief is that if we can do a good job caring for those children and their families, and listening respectfully and educating thoughtfully, we eventually might be able to convince some of them to either partially or fully immunize their children,” he says.

What happens when parents choose not to vaccinate?
If a child does not receive all their recommended vaccines and has a fever or a suspicious rash or cough, they must put on a mask as they enter Hospital offices and inform the front desk or emergency room of their situation. Children who do not receive their vaccinations have very different risks and could potentially spread otherwise preventable illnesses to others.

Children who are not immunized have a higher risk of getting and spreading those preventable diseases. However, they do get these diseases more rarely today compared to 20 or more years ago, because more than 90 percent of other children are vaccinated, creating a protective herd immunity around these vulnerable unprotected youth.

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