When preparing for the start of another school year, parents have a lot to do and a lot on their minds—checklists of school supplies to fulfill, new clothing to buy, parents’ nights to attend, etc. Not to mention, there’s the challenge of weaning kids off their summertime habits (think: sleeping in, staying up late, and more or less spending all the time in between however they please) so they’re ready for the more regimented schedule that school imposes.
With so many things competing for their attention at once, it’s all too easy for parents to overlook a critical aspect of back-to-school readiness—vaccinations and medical checkups.
“Most parents are aware that certain shots are necessary when their kids enter kindergarten and that most schools need proof of that; however, some important booster vaccines that are recommended for kids entering middle school at age 11 or 12 are easier to overlook,” says UTMC family physician Dr. Coral Matus.
Matus also wants to ensure parents are aware of two new immunization campaigns aimed at kids of middle-school and high-school age. One is the Gardasil vaccine for human papillomavirus, or HPV, which is recommended at age 11 or 12. “Gardasil is a three-shot series that can be given over a six month period, but it might be best for parents to schedule the shots to coincide with their child’s yearly checkups,” she says. “Also, the CDC is looking at an abbreviated schedule of just two shots for kids under the age of 15.”
The second big push is to get kids immunized against meningitis before entering high school. Historically, this vaccination was recommended for students entering college, but with more and more outbreaks occurring in high schools in recent years, the recommended age is now being lowered to high school entry.
Along with the Gardasil and meningitis vaccines, more and more schools are encouraging students to get an annual flu shot. “We used to recommend flu shots only for at-risk individuals, such as the elderly and people with severe asthma or emphysema, but now we recommend it for everyone. The vaccine is usually available in mid- to late September, and there’s a big push in our office to offer it beginning in early October, but you can get the shot as late as March and still get the benefit,” Matus says.
One challenge family doctors sometimes encounter is parental reluctance to have their kids vaccinated. This concern is often based on perceived safety issues—for example, they may have heard there’s a link between vaccinations and autism. In the case of Gardasil, parents may oppose the vaccination on moral grounds, believing that having their 11- to 12-year-old vaccinated against a sexually transmitted virus amounts to giving him or her permission to engage in sexual activity.
“Everything in medicine has some risk, so I understand and respect parents concerns over the safety of vaccinations. With respect to autism and vaccines, there are lots of anecdotal reports out there that seem to suggest a connection, but it’s a case of correlation not equaling causation. The vaccines that usually take the blame are the ones we give at 12 to 18 months, which just happens to be the age at which autism is typically diagnosed,” Matus explains. “I also completely understand that parents don’t want to send the wrong message to their kids about when it’s appropriate to become sexually active. But what we’re protecting against presents a much greater threat, and it’s important to weigh the benefits versus the risks.”
Another misconception some parents have is that their child doesn’t really need to be immunized because everyone else has been vaccinated so he or she is protected by “herd immunity.” The problem with this mindset is that the more people who espouse it, the more likely that outbreaks of diseases such as chicken pox, measles, and mumps will occur.
In addition to getting all the recommended vaccinations, kids are encouraged to receive a comprehensive medical examination prior to the start of each school year. In fact, some schools require parents to submit forms proving their child has had an exam before starting school.
Furthermore, kids who are planning to participate in sports at school will likely need to receive a pre-participation physical to ensure they’re healthy enough to play. In fact, according to Matus, the Ohio High School Athletic Association requires physicals for all high school athletes and even provides printable forms parents can use at ohsaa.org.
Beyond a mere formality, a back-to-school checkup is an opportunity to get ahead of health issues that are becoming all too common among today’s youth, such as hypertension, glucose intolerance, diabetes, and other problems associated with obesity and a sedentary lifestyle. “I see a child’s annual checkup as a time to detect health problems early on—when they may seem insignificant—so they don’t become bigger issues down the road. It’s also an opportunity to provide some anticipatory guidance, for example encouraging kids to wear a helmet when riding their bike, wearing sunscreen when playing outdoors, using good judgment when it comes to screen time, and limiting junk food and fast food. If we can teach them good lifestyle habits now, they’ll be much more likely to carry those habits into adulthood,” Matus says.❦