We're within days and weeks of seeing our children back off to school and college. In addition to the clothes and supplies for the coming year, it's also a good time to think about updating your child's immunizations.

The number of shots young ones are needing for protection from some pretty nasty diseases has some parents scratching their heads. Ever since the introduction in the U.S. of the polio vaccine in 1955 and the measles vaccine in 1963, immunizations have allowed us to wipe out smallpox and nearly eliminate diseases that once killed people by the tens of thousands.

As recently as the 1960s, it was not uncommon for kids to be born disabled or placed in iron lungs as a result of childhood infections like polio. These have grown in number and will likely continue to grow as we find new vaccines to thwart infectious diseases.

Vaccines are our best defense against many of these diseases. They provide protection against serious complications such as pneumonia, meningitis (swelling of the lining of the brain), liver cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, bloodstream infections and even death. The Centers For Disease Control recommends vaccinations to protect children against 16 infectious diseases, including measles, mumps, rubella (MMR/German measles), Varicella (chickenpox), hepatitis B, Tdap (diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis/ whooping cough), Haemophilus influenza type B (Hib), polio, influenza (flu), and pneumococcal disease. The recommended immunization schedule is designed to protect infants and children early in life, when they are most vulnerable and before they are exposed to potentially life-threatening diseases.

Children can now be protected against 14 diseases by the time they are 2 years old but that also means they need many shots at one time. Some parents worry that too many vaccines given at one time will overwhelm their baby's immune system. In a recent article in the journal Pediatrics, Dr. Paul Offit and colleagues estimated that infants have the capacity to respond to about 10,000 vaccines at any given time and that no vaccine could “use up” their immune system.

Scientific data currently shows that vaccination of multiple vaccines has no adverse effect on the normal childhood immune system. Both the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend simultaneous administration of all routine childhood vaccines when appropriate. Research is under way to find methods to combine more antigens into a single injection, such as MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) and Varicella, or the Tdap vaccine to fight tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough).

By age 11 and 12, kids are scheduled not only for boosters for Tdap and Varicella, but it is also recommended they get Menactra, combating meningococcal disease (including meningitis) and especially for girls, Gardasil, which protects against human papillomavirus (HPV).

Despite studies that prove vaccines are saving countless lives and days of productivity and that vaccines aren't causing autism, Missouri has been sliding in recent years in the percentage of children getting immunized. As recently as 2006, 80.6 percent of young children in Missouri had received all their shots. Since then, vaccination coverage has plummeted to 56.2 percent for Missouri children from 19 to 35 months according to survey data from the CDC.

This plays into some of outbreaks like whooping cough (pertussis) which have recently been higher than the national average. The more people who get immunized, the more people such as infants and the elderly who aren't eligible for the vaccine are protected by what's referred to as the "herd immunity."

Check the schedule for the age or age range for each vaccine or series of shots is recommended for your child. If your child has missed any shots, there is a catch-up scheduler tool on the CDC Website to see recommended vaccination dates for the missed or skipped vaccines. See your child's healthcare provider with any questions!

Jackie Shearer is a nurse practitioner with Family Medical Care Associates and can be reached at 816-228-1000.