Last Updated: Aug 22, 2018
Making sure your immunizations are up to date isn’t just good for your health. It can protect your classmates, too.
That’s the first lesson Dr. Michael Colli hopes school children learn as they head back to school this fall.
Colli, chief medical officer at Keystone Health and lead pediatrician at Keystone Pediatrics in Chambersburg, speaks from experience. In 2016, he and other local physicians dealt with a mini outbreak of pertussis – more commonly known as whooping cough – that impacted 29 students in the Chambersburg area.
A 2017 change in Pennsylvania regulations governing immunizations for school-age children could decrease the likelihood of future outbreaks, Colli said. He spoke with the Pennsylvania Medical Society’s Healthy Communities project to educate Pennsylvania students and their parents on the importance of vaccines.
Introducing ‘Herd Immunity’
This marks the third school year in which children are required to have all their immunizations within five days of the new school year. Prior to 2017, students had eight months (nearly the entire school year).
By requiring students to get their immunizations sooner, the goal is to create an effect called “herd immunity.” If most students in a school are protected from a disease, the theory goes, it will not spread as quickly from person to person, reducing the entire school’s likelihood of getting sick.
“We believe that initiatives like this to get our children vaccinated sooner will make it less likely for pertussis outbreaks to occur in the future,” Dr. Colli said.
In the first school year after the law took effect, the number of children enrolled in kindergarten without being fully vaccinated dropped from 9,793 to 2,641, according to data from the Pa. Department of Health
“Vaccinations are a safe and effective way to prevent getting a number of serious diseases,” said Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine. “We believe that by changing the length of time for students to be provisionally enrolled from eight months to five days, it will help ensure that students are receiving their essential vaccinations. Vaccinations can not only protect those who are vaccinated, but also those who may have a medical condition where they cannot be vaccinated.”
Dr. Colli described vaccines as a “smart and sophisticated way to give ourselves immunity, without putting patients at any danger or risk of getting sick.”
The vaccine takes a small portion of the virus, and injects it into your body. This essentially tricks your immune system into thinking that the full virus is present when, in reality, it isn’t, Dr. Colli said.
“It’s not enough to get you sick with the disease, but enough to trigger the immune response,” he said. “The idea is if you get enough booster doses of vaccines, you can get lifelong immunity for that particular disease.”
You may experience a low-grade fever for about 24 hours after receiving the vaccine.
“If they do get a low-grade fever, that’s a good sign,” Dr. Colli said. “That means that the body’s immune system is kicking in. It’s recognizing that there’s something foreign in your body. It’s not really getting you sick from it, but your immune system is getting revved up.”
Required Immunizations in Pennsylvania
The Pennsylvania regulations still allows for students to opt-out of their immunizations through religious and philosophical exemptions.
Some of the vaccines require multiple doses that are spread out over several months or years. Even if your child is behind on their vaccines, Dr. Colli said it’s not too late.
“If the family makes a good faith effort to begin the series, the schools will not exclude the child from education,” he said.
If you do not have health insurance or if it’s not covered on your insurance plan, you may be eligible for federal funding at public sites, including a Federally Qualified Health Center or Rural Health Clinic. For more information, call the Vaccines for Children program at (888) 646-6864.