In the first few years of a child’s life, families get to know the doctor’s office fairly well. On schedule, they return for well-child checks, growth and developmental assessments and vaccinations. Once a child starts kindergarten, however, the visits start to space out. Parents may wonder what lies ahead in regards to maintaining their child’s health. In particular, are there vaccines recommended for pre-teens and teenagers?
Tdap (vaccine for tetanus-diptheria-pertussis)
Children are immunized against these three diseases prior to kindergarten. The protection from these vaccinations wanes with time, however, and the majority of pertussis (whooping cough) cases occur in the 11–15-year-old age group. Therefore, it is important that your child receive a booster Tdap to maintain his immunity. As a result of the 2010 California pertussis epidemic (when more than 10,000 people became ill and 10 infants died), the state of California now requires pre-teens to have the Tdap booster prior to starting 7th grade.
Meningococcal vaccine (MCV4)
Meningococcal disease is the leading cause of bacterial meningitis (an infection of the covering of the brain and spinal cord). While anyone can get meningococcal disease, it is most common in young adults 16–21 years of age. The bacteria spreads through droplets from the mouth or nose (e.g., coughing or kissing). College-age students living in dorms are particularly at risk. Of those who become ill with bacterial meningitis, 10–15 percent will die. Of those who survive, 50 percent will suffer long-term consequences, including deafness, brain damage or limb amputation. Vaccination provides protection from this devastating disease. The meningitis vaccine is recommended for children ages 11–12, with a second booster given at age 16.
HPV (vaccine for human papilloma virus)
Protecting children and young adults from cancer is a goal of all parents. The vaccine against HPV does just that. Human papilloma virus infection is widespread. In the United States alone, 79 million people are infected with HPV. The majority of these infections occur in people in their teens and early 20s. HPV infection does not usually cause symptoms, and people may not know they are carrying it. The virus is the primary cause of cancers of the cervix, anus, vagina and vulva.
The HPV vaccine series is a set of three shots, given over a six-month period. It is recommended for both girls and boys, starting at age 11. Since HPV is spread primarily through sexual contact, some families believe it is inappropriate or unnecessary to give it to tweens and young teens. HPV vaccines offer the best protection, however, when given before the age of sexual activity. This allows tweens to establish a strong immune response before any possible exposure. In the same way that parents start teaching young children about “stranger danger” well before the age that they will be out of their parents’ sight, vaccinating tweens and teens against HPV infection protects them from a potential future danger. Studies have consistently shown that HPV vaccine does not lead to earlier sexual activity. Studies do show that vaccination leads to lower rates of HPV infection and lower rates of genital tract cancers.
Everyone 6 months of age and older should get a flu vaccine each year. Influenza (“the flu”) is a contagious virus of the nose, throat and lungs. While most people who become sick with flu recover within two weeks, this infection is unpredictable. Complications can include bronchitis and pneumonia. Every year, a few otherwise healthy people die from influenza. Infants, young children and older adults are at particular risk from influenza. Vaccinating your teen will help protect not only him, but other family members as well.
The bottom line? The need for vaccines is lifelong. As your young children grow into their teen years, they may see their doctors only when they need forms filled out for sports, camping events, applying to college, etc. These appointments provide a perfect opportunity to talk to your doctor about recommended vaccines.
Additional information can be found at www.cdc.gov/vaccines/who/teens.
For more information about vaccinations for babies and children, read “The Top Five Concerns about Infant Vaccines” in the October 2013 digital issue.
Elizabeth Rosenblum, M.D. is an Associate Clinical Professor in Family Medicine and Reproductive Medicine at UC San Diego. She specializes in maternal-child health. She completed a Vaccine Science Fellowship with the American Academy of Family Physicians in 2011.
Published: September 2013