We all know the importance of up-to-date vaccines, both for children and for the parents taking care of them. However, we often don’t think about the other friends and family members that can also impact the health of our children, especially newborns and small infants.
My cousin recently gave birth to an adorable baby boy and seeing all of the family visiting and holding him reminded me of how important it is to protect him and other babies like him, not only by making sure he and his parents are up to date with their vaccines, but also by optimizing the health of his grandparents and other caretakers.
Most grandparents are eager to play active roles in their grandchildren’s lives. Many even become the everyday babysitter when parents return to work. So it’s important to make sure they are in optimal health.
Grandparents need to consider a few vaccines before beginning close contact with infants, especially if they are seeing the babies daily.
Influenza: The flu shot is probably the most obvious. Influenza can be very serious for people of any age, but it’s especially dangerous for those with the weakest immune systems, such as those at both ends of the age spectrum (young infants and older grandparents/great-grandparents). The minimum age to receive the vaccine is 6 months, so a flu shot is especially important for people who take care of such young infants or see them on a regular basis.
Shingles: The shingles vaccine is recommended for anybody over the age of 50. Anyone who has previously been sick with chickenpox can develop this painful viral infection, but the risk increases with age. Babies exposed to open blisters from a shingles infection can end up catching chickenpox. While this is a minor infection most of the time, it can lead to serious complications such as pneumonia or encephalitis.
Pneumococcus: This bacteria can be spread to others, and it can cause pneumonia, ear infections or even more serious infections such as meningitis. Adults over 65 years old and children under 5 years old are at the highest risk for infection.
Tdap (tetanus-diphtheria-pertussis): This vaccine is important because of the ‘p’ component – pertussis, or “whooping cough.” Pertussis is a very contagious disease that causes a nagging cough in older kids or adults. In infants, it can lead to serious respiratory problems, resulting in hospitalization for around half of infants who become sick. Not all tetanus boosters contain the pertussis vaccine, so parents and grandparents who have not received the pertussis component or are not up to date should receive a Tdap booster.
MMR (measles-mumps-rubella): This vaccine prevents very serious diseases, especially measles, which can cause deafness, brain damage and death, especially for younger children. Adults who were born before the mid-1950s likely have already contracted these diseases and developed immunity to them. However, for adults born after 1957, it is recommended to get the MMR vaccine if there’s no proof of immunity to measles, especially prior to any contact with infants who have not been able to receive the vaccine yet because of their young age.
By keeping up with their vaccines and overall health, grandparents can not only minimize the risk to their grandchildren, they can protect their own health, helping them remain positive influences in their families’ lives for many years to come.
Dr. Laura Shefner writes about pediatric care for the Cleveland Jewish News. She is a pediatrician at The MetroHealth System and practices in Beachwood and Parma.