FORSYTH COUNTY — Every day and week seems to be celebrating something different, from Military Children Week to National Pizza Day. However, they do not usually cover such a polarizing topic as vaccinations.
National Infant Immunization Week began Saturday and runs through April 23, according to District 2 Public Health, which covers Forsyth and 12 other counties in northeast Georgia.
“Some diseases that once injured or killed thousands of children have been eliminated completely, and others are close to extinction, primarily due to safe and effective vaccines,” said Dave Palmer, a spokesman for the health department.
Palmer said there are many reasons infants should be vaccinated.
“Because of advances in medical science, your child can be protected against more diseases than ever before,” he said. “Giving babies the recommended immunizations by age 2 is the best way to protect them from 14 serious childhood diseases, like whopping cough and measles.”
He said preventing whopping cough can begin before a child is even born, so pregnant women are recommended to receive a vaccine, or Tdap, during their third trimester of each pregnancy.
“Vaccines are only given to children after a long and careful review by scientists, doctors and health care professionals,” Palmer said. “Among children born during 1994-2013, vaccination will prevent an estimated 322 million illnesses, 21 million hospitalizations and 732,000 deaths over the course of their lifetimes.”
However, controversy abounds in the topic of vaccinations for children, with opponents citing religious reasons and potential links to autism and other disorders.
Forsyth County Schools, in accordance with state policy, has a religious waiver for student immunizations.
Last year, of the 42,747 students enrolled in the school system, 662 completed waivers for the measles or measles-mumps-rubella vaccines. Of those, 66 were for medical reasons, with the rest exempt on religious grounds.
In May 2015, a child at an elementary school in south Forsyth was initially diagnosed with measles, though subsequent lab tests came back negative. It would have been the first measles case in Forsyth County in possibly 25 years.
Palmer said the county’s immunization rate of more than 99 percent is one of the highest in Georgia.
According to the school district’s website, all children entering the system are required to have been vaccinated for a number of diseases, a list of which they provide.
Getting a vaccination does not guarantee its prevention.
“We have seen resurgences of measles and whopping cough (pertussis) over the past few years,” Palmer said. “[The Centers for Disease Control] reported 32,971 cases of pertussis in 2014 – a 15 percent increase from the 28,639 cases reported in 2013.”
He said the majority of deaths that occurred during that time were in children less than 3 months old.
“Unfortunately, some babies are too young to be completely vaccinated, and some people may not be able to receive certain vaccinations due to severe allergies, weakened immune systems or other reasons,” he said. “To help keep them safe, it is important that you and your children who are able to get vaccinated are fully immunized.”
Though vaccinations come with its share of controversy, they have, in some cases, eliminated diseases that killed or injured people just a few generations ago.
“Smallpox vaccination eradicated that disease worldwide. Your children don’t have to get smallpox shots anymore because the disease no longer exists,” Palmer said. “By vaccinating children against rubella (German measles), the risk that pregnant women will pass this virus on to their fetus or newborn has been dramatically decreased, and birth defects associated with that virus no longer are seen in the United States.
“If we continue vaccinating now, and vaccinating completely, parents in the future may be able to trust that some diseases of today will no longer be around to harm their children in the future.”