Protecting and maintaining children’s health and well-being is the number one priority on every parent’s list. Childhood immunization is one weapon that helps prevent our children from getting devastating diseases like meningitis, pneumonia and polio. However, navigating the immunization process while living in another country or moving between countries can seem like a daunting process.
Which childhood immunization schedule should you follow? What are the differences between the schedules? What if you want to add something to your home country’s standard schedule? What about special immunizations tailored to life in China?
Many countries have generally agreed on which childhood immunizations are essential; however, there may be minor differences from country to country. Many times, parents will choose to follow the schedule of their home country and supplement it with other immunizations recommended by organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US.
It’s fair to say that most countries include tetanus, diphtheria, whooping cough (also known as pertussis), haemophilus influenza B (which causes meningitis and a serious disease of the upper airway called epiglottitis) and hepatitis B in their immunization schedules.
This may sound like a lot of needles, but fortunately new combination vaccines (like the 5-in-1 vaccine) are available right here in Beijing. Other standard immunizations cover polio, meningococcal, pneumococcal, measles, mumps and rubella (also known as German measles). The 2011 outbreak of polio in northwest China highlights the importance of keeping up-to-date on vaccinations for kids. Additional vaccines found on some countries’ schedules include BCG (to protect against tuberculosis), chicken pox (varicella) and rotavirus (which causes serious gastroenteritis in young children).
Older kids and teenagers are also included in the vaccination schedule. Having booster shots at the right time is essential for them to stay protected as they get older. There are also several vaccines specially geared towards teens, such as the human papilloma virus (HPV) and meningitis vaccines. The HPV vaccine is recommended around the ages of 12-13 to help protect against cervical cancer in women. The meningitis vaccine is highly recommended for teenagers going off to university – especially for those who will be living in dorms.
In addition to the standard childhood vaccinations, there are other vaccinations to consider for living and traveling in China. These include hepatitis A, typhoid, rabies, and Japanese encephalitis. Hepatitis A and typhoid fever are serious infections usually transmitted by contaminated food or water, while Japanese encephalitis is carried by mosquitoes and has been found in some areas of Beijing.
Any mammal – including cats, dogs, monkeys and bats – potentially carries rabies, a deadly disease. Since China has many strays, the rabies vaccine is particularly recommended for children and those traveling in rural areas of China. Last but not least, all children and adults should get the Influenza vaccination every year. Kids are particularly vulnerable to infection.
One of the unique challenges of living in Beijing’s expat community is good record-keeping. For families that are often on the move and get vaccinated in different countries, this can be difficult. Using an International Immunization Record book for each of your children will ensure that the right vaccinations are given at the right time. Catching up on immunizations is recommended for kids who might have missed out on some essential vaccines.
There are many questions when it comes to vaccinating children against common childhood and travel-related illnesses. Getting reliable information and discussing your concerns with your doctor is very important. Taking the time to talk about vaccinations with your doctor can help maximize your child’s health and well-being.
Dr. Lyn Wren is a child specialist and family physician at International SOS. She has a strong interest in women’s health, adolescent health, preventative healthcare and counselling. Dr. Wren is originally from Western Australia and has been living in China for over three years.
Photo by Jeff Lau