We've all (understandably) been fixated on the COVID-19 vaccine these past few years. But remember there are more than a dozen other vaccines already out there that can protect both children and adults from a long list of worrisome illnesses.
If you're not already, get familiar with the vaccines that can save lives — and when you need them — in our guide to vaccinations.
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Why Vaccines Are Important
"The reason we give vaccines is to prevent illnesses that can kill people and cause them considerable harm or other problems," says Sandra Kemmerly, MD, system medical director of hospital quality at Ochsner Health in New Orleans.
Thanks to vaccines, diseases like smallpox have virtually been eradicated. For example, in 1921, before a vaccine was developed, more than 15,000 Americans died from diphtheria. But the disease is nearly unheard of in the U.S. now, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
"Those vaccines have saved countless lives," Dr. Kemmerly says. Vaccines can now also reduce the effects of some "adult" diseases, like pneumonia and shingles.
Unfortunately, even diseases that are now very rare due to vaccines haven't completely disappeared and, in areas where vaccine rates are declining, outbreaks still occur, per the CDC.
How Effective Are Vaccines?
This depends on the particular vaccine. No vaccine is 100 percent effective, but most childhood vaccines are between 85 and 95 percent effective, according to the World Health Organization.
For the flu vaccine, on the other hand, rates usually hover between 40 percent and 60 percent. For the 2021 to 2022 flu season, the vaccine was 36 percent effective, per CDC estimates (but it was 77 percent effective for children ages 6 months to 4 years).
Because many illnesses don't mutate, one or a series of shots early in life can provide protection for most of your life. For example, you'll complete all the shots needed for polio immunization by around age 6, and then won't need an update later in life.
But you have to get the flu vaccine every year. That's because "the flu virus replicates faster than almost any other virus on earth," says LaTasha Perkins, MD, family physician and assistant professor at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.
"Vaccines are a selfless act."
How Vaccines Work
There are four main types of vaccines, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), but they all work in roughly the same way.
"Your body gets exposed [to an organism] and studies it and learns how to mount a response to it," Dr. Perkins explains. "When it comes come into contact with the full virus [or other germ], it knows how to fight it off or at least you don't express the illness." That's because vaccines prompt your body to create cells that know how to fight the full virus, should you encounter it in the future.
Depending on the vaccine, you may need more than one shot, called a series. That's because, with certain vaccines, each successive dose adds more immunity until your body gets up to speed, Dr. Perkins says. It's not worth delaying any vaccines because your child could get sick with the very illness that vaccine is supposed to prevent between doses.
In some cases, a single vaccine will protect against several diseases. The MMR vaccine, which inoculates against measles, mumps and rubella, is one example. Rather than requiring six shots for individual diseases, the MMR vaccine only requires two, Dr. Kemmerly says. "This decreases the actual number of sticks." That's something babies and children are bound to appreciate.
Are Vaccines Safe?
While nothing in this world is 100 percent safe (even too much water has a downside), vaccines usually don't cause anything more than pain and redness around the injection site. This is true even if you are getting multiple vaccines in one shot. And, importantly, stresses Dr. Kemmerly, there's no evidence whatsoever that vaccines cause autism.
Candidate vaccines go through a rigorous vetting process and often take years to reach the market.
People who have weakened immune systems — whether due to chemotherapy, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis or another condition — should talk to their doctor before getting certain vaccines.
"Someone who's immunocompromised shouldn't just show up at [a pharmacy] and get a vaccine," Dr. Perkins says. "Make an appointment with your family doctor and talk to them about the pros and cons of each vaccine. It's extremely important."
What if You're Pregnant?
You can and should still get vaccines. In fact, the annual flu shot is especially important because pregnant people have a higher risk of flu complications, Dr. Kemmerly says. Vaccinations during this time will also help protect your baby, according to the CDC.
One caution: Pregnant people should not get live virus vaccines even though these are weakened viruses, per the CDC. During your pregnancy, it's always a good idea to talk to your doctor before getting any vaccines or taking any medication.
Getting Vaccinated During the Age of COVID-19
Vaccination rates dropped during the novel coronavirus pandemic. For instance, childhood vaccinations in Michigan dropped from two-thirds of 5-month-old babies between 2016 and 2019, to less than half in May of 2020, according to a May 2020 report from the CDC.
Don't let COVID-19 prevent you from getting necessary vaccines — after all, you wouldn't want to get COVID-19 and shingles or measles, nor would you want that for your children.
"Don't skip vaccines," Dr. Kemmerly says. "If your child hasn't been vaccinated, it puts them at incredible risk."
The advice extends to the flu shot as well, for both kids and adults.
"I'm urging everyone to get the flu vaccine early," Dr. Kemmerly says. "Even though it's not 100 percent perfect it's better than nothing, and COVID-19 is going to be here at the same time. People who have been reluctant in the past should be first in line."
Doctors are taking precautions to make sure clinics and offices are safe from COVID-19. "Trust that we are putting in the work so that when you come into the office you will be safe," Dr. Perkins says, pointing out that Georgetown University student health has safely been providing preventive care all summer.
The Vaccine Schedule
There's no two ways about it: The vaccine schedule can feel a little overwhelming. Fortunately, you don't have to figure it out alone. Your pediatrician or family physician's office will help you keep track and electronic health records have made things a lot easier. Some statewide vaccination programs also track who got which vaccine when.
Here, via the CDC and Nemours Foundation, is the recommended vaccine schedule from birth to adulthood.
0 to 24 Months
The lion's share of vaccines are given in early childhood to make sure a little one is protected before any potential exposure. Babies are protected for a while by their mother's antibodies, but "that immunity wanes with passing of time, so vaccinations are critical," Dr. Kemmerly says.
- Hepatitis B protects you against a virus that can cause liver disease. The first dose is usually given before a baby leaves the hospital, Dr. Kemmerly says, but you can get it at any age, per the Nemours Foundation.
1 to 2 Months
- Hepatitis B, second dose
- First dose of five for DTaP, which stands for diphtheria, tetanus and acellular pertussis (whooping cough), per the Nemours Foundation.
- First of three to four doses for HiB (Haemophilus influenzae type b), per the CDC.
- First of four doses of IPV, or inactivated poliovirus vaccine, per to the CDC.
- First of three doses of PCV or pneumococcal conjugate vaccine, which protects against pneumococcal bacteria, per the CDC.
- First of 2 doses of RV or rotavirus vaccine, per the CDC.
- Second dose of DTaP
- Second dose of Hib
- Second dose of IPV
- Second dose of PCV
- Second dose of RV
- Third dose of DTaP
- Third dose of Hib
- Third dose of PCV
- Third dose of RV (if needed — sometimes only two doses are given)
- Influenza vaccine. After six months, this vaccination should be given annually
- COVID-19 vaccine (2- or 3-dose primary series of either the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine, respectively). After completing the primary series, people should stay up to date with COVID-19 vaccination by getting the most recent booster dose recommended for them by the CDC
6 to 18 Months
- Second dose of Hepatitis B
- Third dose of IPV
- Second dose of influenza vaccine. (The first time any child under 9 gets the flu vaccine, they will be given two doses at least a month apart. After that, it should be given annually.)
12 to 15 Months
- Fourth dose of Hib
- First dose of MMR
- Fourth dose of PCV
- Varicella (chickenpox)
12 to 23 Months
- Hepatitis A. Two shots are needed at least six months apart.
15 to 18 Months
- Fourth dose of DTaP
4 to 6 Years
- Fifth (final) dose of DTaP
- Second dose of MMR
- Fourth dose of IPV
- Second dose of chickenpox
11 to 12 Years
- HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine. This vaccine is given in two shots over a 6- to 12-month period, with the first shot given as early as age 9. For teens and young adults ages 15 to 26, it is given in 3 shots over 6 months. It's recommended for everyone to prevent genital warts and some types of cancer.
- First dose of meningococcal conjugate vaccine
16 to 18 Years
- Booster shot for meningococcal vaccine should be given at age 16.
- Meningococcal B vaccine. This can be given in two or three doses.
If you didn't get all your childhood vaccinations, check with your doctor to see if you should still get any of them. Also, the effectiveness of some vaccines declines over time. Some vaccines are meant specifically for adults.
You'll need to continue getting your flu vaccine annually in adulthood, since the flu virus changes from year to year. And you should stay up to date with COVID-19 vaccination by getting the most recent booster dose recommended for you by the CDC.
- Tetanus shot updates every 10 years
- Hepatitis B update (if needed)
- HPV if you didn't get it earlier. It's now been approved for adults up to the age of 45, Dr. Perkins says.
- Shingles vaccine (herpes zoster) at age 50
- Pneumococcal vaccine at age 50
By getting vaccinated, you protect not just yourself, but your family and whole community as well. "Vaccines are a selfless act," Dr. Perkins says. "You get five gold stars for doing it."
Concerned About COVID-19?
Read more stories to help you navigate the novel coronavirus pandemic:
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Measles Cases and Outbreaks.”
- Food and Drug Administration: “Vaccination Is the Best Protection Against Measles.”
- U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: “Vaccine Types.”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Vaccine Safety for Moms-To-Be.”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Decline in Child Vaccination Coverage During the COVID-19 Pandemic — Michigan Care Improvement Registry, May 2016–May 2020.”
- The Nemours Foundation: “Immunization Schedule.”
- The Nemours Foundation: “Your Child's Immunizations: Diphtheria, Tetanus & Pertussis Vaccine (DTaP).”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Haemophilus Influenzae Type b (Hib) VIS.”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Polio Vaccination: What Everyone Should Know.”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Administering Pneumococcal Vaccines.”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Rotavirus Vaccines.”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “What Vaccines are Recommended for You.”
- CDC: "2021–2022 Estimated Flu Illnesses, Medical Visits, Hospitalizations, and Deaths Prevented by Flu Vaccination"
- Center for Disease Control and Prevention: "Interim Clinical Considerations for Use of COVID-19 Vaccines Currently Approved or Authorized in the United States"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Diphtheria, Tetanus, and Whooping Cough Vaccination"
- World Health Organization: "Vaccines and immunization: Myths and misconceptions"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.