Immunizations FAQ

How do immunizations work?

Getting an immunization is like giving your body's immune system a photo of some bad guys.  In this case, the bad guys are germs that can hurt or even kill you if your immune system doesn't recognize them quickly enough. 

It works like this:  in every shot there are little pieces of germs (doctors call these pieces antigens) that have been killed or weakened.  These antigens are like a photo of a killer's face, and when your immune system sees these antigens, it learns exactly what these germs look like.

Later, when you run into these dangerous germs on the street, your immune system will recognize them immediately, and will block or kill them before they have a chance to hurt you.  Without the vaccine, your immune system's response can be too slow to protect you.

So, just like giving a policeman accurate photos of a dangerous criminal, immunizations help your body's natural immune system to be able to react quickly and effectively, and keep you from getting sick--or worse. 

Aren't these diseases really rare now?

That’s a common misconception.  We don’t see some of these illnesses around here much anymore, like diphtheria, polio or measles, but they used to be very common, and they’re still very common in other parts of the world.  So, they can surprise you by coming to Milwaukee by accident with the next international plane that arrives at Mitchell Field.

Other diseases are still very common here, for example Mumps, Chickenpox and Whooping Cough (which is also called Pertussis).  We had a big Whooping Cough outbreak in 2004, with over 5000 cases in Wisconsin and at least 3 deaths.  Wisconsin was also at the center of a big nationwide Mumps outbreak in 2005 that also caused some deaths.

Chickenpox is a common disease, but it’s not serious, right?

That’s another misconception.  People don’t think of chickenpox as a killer, but it is.  Before chickenpox vaccine was available in 1994, on average 11,000 Americans were hospitalized and 100 died every year from chickenpox.  But even though it’s mostly kids who usually get chickenpox, over a third of all chickenpox hospitalizations are adults, and over half of all people who die from chickenpox are adults.  What’s worse, most adults get chickenpox from their own, unvaccinated kids.

What is "herd immunity"?

Not only do adults get diseases like chickenpox and influenza from their unvaccinated kids, but other kids get these diseases from their unvaccinated classmates. Fortunately, experts say that once a community has at least a 90% completion rate on immunizations, the entire “herd” of people in that community has enough immunity to protect the remaining few who haven’t yet been immunized, or who can’t be immunized for some reason. So we want at least 90% of people to be completely up to date on their shots.

Is it better to get a natural infection than to get shots to prevent it?

That’s another misconception.  Almost every vaccine is either as good - - or better - - at stimulating the immune system than the natural disease it prevents.  And the complications from natural diseases are far more common and more serious than from vaccines. 

For example, about 1 out of 20 people with measles gets pneumonia, and about 1 out of 8 people with pertussis gets pneumonia, but nobody gets pnuemonia from an MMR vaccine or a DTaP or Tdap vaccine. 

Another example is encephalitis, a brain inflammation that can kill you.  If you have pertussis disease, you have a 1 out of 20 chance of getting encephalitis, and a 1 out of 300 chance if you get mumps.  But encephalitis from MMR vaccine is less than 1 in a million. 

So, vaccines in general are more effective and far safer than natural disease.

Aren't babies too young to get so many shots?


Absolutely not.  In fact, your immune system starts working even before birth.  The job of a normal, healthy immune system is to recognize parts of germs called antigens, figure out which antigens come from dangerous germs, and kill those germs.  Scientists estimate that even very young infants can respond to over 100,000 antigens.

Most vaccines contain fewer than 10 antigens.  Therefore, babies are not too young to get shots, and they’re not getting too many shots either -- their immune systems can manage far, far more shots than we actually give.

What happens if my child misses some shots? Do they have to start over?

No, it is not necessary to start over. Your physician can continue the shots from where they left off.



Why does my child's school need a copy of their immunization record?

It is a state law that all children enrolled in school must have their immunizations up-to-date and on file at the school. If parents do not get their children immunized, they could be fined, or their children could be temporarily excluded from school. Keep in mind that diseases can spread through a school very quickly, so immunizations will keep everyone's children safe!


How do I get my child's immunization records if the doctor's office is closed or moved out of town?

Call the State Medical Examining Board at 1-608-266-2811.  Ask for the current location of the doctor or clinic.


What if I cannot afford to get my child immunized?

Immunizations are usually free for children when families can't afford them.  Please call:

City of Milwaukee Health Department Immunization Program

to find out where you can go for immunizations.

Your child's health depends on it!


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