Health is top of mind for virtually every family right now. But even in the midst of a pandemic (not to mention cold and flu season), there are simple, practical steps parents can take to protect their children's immunity. We partnered with Dr. Jacob "Jake" Weatherly, a pediatrician at Stanford Children's Health, to find out what parents should prioritize to protect their children's health, as well as what's on the horizon in the fight against COVID-19.
Maintain your child's vaccination schedule
The number one thing pediatricians recommend to protect your child's immunity? Maintaining their regular well visits and immunization schedules. "Really, there's nothing routine about the childhood vaccines," says Dr. Jacob "Jake" Weatherly, MD at Stanford Children's Health. "There is so much excitement right now about the COVID vaccine, and when these routine childhood vaccines were developed, they were just as exciting because they prevented terrible diseases that we fortunately no longer have to contend with on such a large scale."
Routine vaccines include diphtheria, pertussis, various strains of bacterial pneumonia, rotavirus, meningitis, measles, mumps and rubella. "All of these that we call the 'routine vaccines' are so important now—and in some ways more important than ever—to prevent outbreaks of these preventable diseases during the COVID pandemic," Weatherly says.
Keep up your child's well visits
Vaccinations aren't the only reason for children's well visit schedules. Especially in the first few years of life, these appointments are specifically designed for pediatricians to monitor growth and development while keeping an eye out for potential issues. "Child development is time sensitive," Weatherly says. "The rate at which children are growing in terms of physical growth like height and weight changes with age and follows a predictable pattern. It's important we track that growth at the routine intervals children's checkups are scheduled because a delay in growth and development can be a sign of an underlying medical problem that needs timely attention." Well visits enable pediatricians to notice and monitor changes in growth or delays in development that could signal a medical issue—and where early intervention often has the best results.
Worried about visiting the office? Talk to your pediatrician. Most facilities have put extra safeguards in place, like limiting the number of patients seen in a day, scheduling well and sick patients in different areas of the building or at different times of day, and requiring PPE for staff and patients to ensure their patients' safety. If you're still nervous, ask your provider about tele-health options to make sure your child's care stays on track.
Make sure the whole family gets a flu shot
Getting a flu shot is always an important measure in keeping your family safe, especially for young children (under age two) who fall into a higher risk category for influenza symptoms. This year, it may be more important than ever because many hospitals are inundated with COVID-19 cases, and hospital visits for influenza will only increase that load. "We also know that it is possible for people in general and for children to be co-infected with two or even more viruses. So it is possible for a child to have an influenza infection and also a COVID-19 infection or another viral infection," Weatherly says. "Preventing the influenza component is hugely important for keeping us healthy and trying to reduce our need to go to emergency rooms or hospitals or even intensive care units during this very difficult period."
If you're unsure if your child can get the flu shot because they have an underlying health issue, there's good news. A 2017 study published in the journal Pediatrics that looked at healthy children without underlying medical conditions and children with a variety of medical problems (such as heart disease, lung disease and other medical complexity) found that the flu vaccine reduced the risk of flu-associated death by 51% among children with high-risk medical conditions. and by 65% among healthy children. Talk to your pediatrician to be certain about your options. "We always want to get the flu shot safely and thoughtfully, but what it really comes down to is that the flu shot is safe, it's effective, it saves lives, and it is very much appropriate for children with medical problems as well as healthy children," Weatherly says.
Double down on your efforts to prevent COVID-19 exposure
At a time when many seem to be losing interest in social distancing efforts, Weatherly says this is one of the most important steps to stay healthy during the pandemic. "We really all need to redouble our efforts at preventing exposure and transmission of COVID-19," he says. "And so it means good hand washing, wearing our mask when we're outside of the home, trying our best to stay six feet away from people who are outside of our household, and staying home if we have possible symptoms of COVID-19." Those symptoms can include cough, congestion, fever, runny nose, vomiting, diarrhea, body aches or headaches, and if you or your child is experiencing any of them, the best thing to do is to self-isolate and contact your medical provider so he or she can guide you on testing, quarantining or isolation steps that may be needed.
The COVID-19 vaccine is another exciting development in the fight against the pandemic, and Weatherly says the day isn't far off when it will be available for children. "In phase 1C is where our pediatric population does start to come into play," Weatherly says. "In phase 1C, the CDC and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices have recommended vaccination for people age 16 to 64 years old with underlying medical conditions that would place them at higher risk of serious COVID-19 infection."
The Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine has been authorized for people at 18 years and older, and the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine has been studied and authorized for patients 16 years and older with ongoing tests now in children as young as 12. And according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, AstraZeneca has received approval in the UK to study their COVID-19 vaccine on children as young as five. Studies on children can be conducted as "bridging studies," in which researchers can enroll a smaller number of children and do lab tests to see if the children's immune response is the same as it was in adult trials—meaning a more efficient trial and more timely results. "This is a really exciting area," Weatherly says. "The COVID vaccine is in a lot of ways a wonder of science and modern medicine and provides our best hope and our best shot of really ending the pandemic."
With so much to consider and so many potential changes on the horizon, it can feel overwhelming for families, but Weatherly urges parents to be gentle with themselves. "This is a challenging time. Parents are doing their best to balance all the needs of their children—physical health, mental and emotional wellbeing and their education and learning. Have a lot of compassion and empathy for yourself, too, as parents," Weatherly says. "The pandemic and these times are more than a parent can take on themselves and do alone, so enlist help. Enlist the help of your pediatrician, teachers, schools, therapists and mental health professionals." Remember that the tried and true methods of healthy lifestyle and disease prevention, like frequent hand washing, wearing masks when you have to leave the home, eating a varied diet, and establishing good sleep patterns, can make a huge difference in protecting the health of your child and yourself.
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