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When Chelsea Reinhardt, 34, gave birth to her first child, George, getting his CDC-recommended pediatric vaccines was just another box to check — in what felt like an endless list of boxes to check and questions to ask.
Becoming a new parent is overwhelming for anyone, but Chelsea struggled with postpartum anxiety on top of the usual learning curve. “The first nine months were just excruciatingly scary,” she says. She remembers constant worries and questions, from “what if George spits up while he’s lying on his back with safe sleeping practices?” to “oh my gosh, when do I give him water — have I missed that completely?”
Chelsea sought care for postpartum anxiety and now is living contently in South Boston with her husband Will, and children George, 4, and Lily, 1. She is the chief operating officer at Nurture by Naps (NAPS), an organization that combines the expertise of registered nurses with a personal understanding of new parents’ experiences and needs.
Working at NAPS, Chelsea and her colleagues hear the most pressing questions and needs of thousands of new and expecting parents in the Boston area and beyond. Of the many things on parents’ minds, Chelsea was surprised to realize how few conversations around pediatric vaccines and the diseases they help protect against come up.
Then again, Chelsea recalls seeing the CDC-recommended pediatric vaccine schedule in her own NAPS pre-baby boot camp and thinking “about everything else besides what the vaccines actually stood for” despite her long list of baby-related questions.
Chelsea says she wishes it was common practice for pediatricians to have a conversation with parents about each vaccine on the recommended schedule — explaining what the vaccines are designed to help protect against and why the vaccines are important. It would be amazing, she says, if parents were able to learn some of the science behind vaccines.
The science — and the people — behind pediatric vaccines
“The vast majority of people who are working on vaccines, making vaccines, etc., care super deeply about what they’re doing, are very proud to be a scientist, and the vast majority of us have families,” says Ingrid Scully, PhD, executive director of vaccine research and development at Pfizer and mother of two. “We really do look at it as ‘is this something that I would want to give my kids, my family?’”
With her career at Pfizer spanning more than 17 years, Ingrid has worked on pneumococcal vaccines and others, and has even seen her own kids receive vaccines she worked on.
Ingrid has also seen the consequences of missing CDC-recommended pediatric vaccines first-hand. While earning her PhD, which included two years of medical school, she saw babies with pertussis (whooping cough) in the hospital. “It was so impactful to see these teeny tiny babies who are struggling to breathe,” Ingrid remembers. “It really drove me in my career to say ‘Okay, this is something I want to make sure no parent has to go through, to watch their baby struggle to breathe, or have other less than positive outcomes.’”
Ingrid and other scientists are continually working to do just that by developing new vaccines and improving upon old ones.
Take the pneumococcal vaccination, which helps to protect against serious and potentially fatal disease manifestations like sepsis and meningitis. A version of the vaccine to help protect kids was made possible with the advent of conjugation vaccine technology, which uses a protein piece to enhance the immune system’s ability to find and fight the bacteria.
From there, the pneumococcal vaccine has been improved in iterations by increasing the number of serotypes — strains of a bacteria — it can recognize. “You’re protecting against more and more types of pneumococcal bacteria that cause disease,” Ingrid says. “Ultimately, one day it’d be really nice to have a universal one that protects against all of them … We’re still trying to move in that direction.”
Two accomplished parents meet
At Pfizer’s Kendall Square campus, Chelsea and Ingrid meet for the first time on a late summer afternoon.
Chelsea reads a letter she’s prepared for Ingrid. It delves into her experience with postpartum anxiety and how little she thought about vaccines when she was getting them for her own children, despite her long list of questions and her work with new parents. She ends with the same question on many doctors’ and vaccine advocates’ minds: “How do we cut through the noise and the craziness of life as a new parent? How do we refocus on how and why vaccines are so important to us individually and collectively?”
Ingrid agrees that oftentimes, as a society, we forget why vaccines are so important. “You can think about vaccination a little bit like having a seawall,” she says. A vaccinated population, like the seawall, protects against disease outbreaks. But the diseases are still there, just like the ocean is still there. In order to keep the diseases that have caused so many illnesses and deaths throughout history at bay, we need to maintain a vaccinated population.
Chelsea expresses that she wishes there were a better forum to have conversations like this for all parents.
“I really encourage every new parent to take a moment and sit [their] pediatrician down and ask the questions that they want to ask,” Ingrid advises. “We should all be informed consumers of health care and to really understand what’s going on with our children.”
After a long and animated conversation, Chelsea thanks Ingrid for taking the time to speak with her about such an important topic. “Meeting someone who has already gone through a couple years with their kids, and gone through all the pediatric vaccines, and truly understands the science, since you’re creating the science, is truly fascinating,” she says.
It’s not too late to start your child’s pediatric vaccines
Many parents delayed child well visits, where they’d typically start getting pediatric vaccines, during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021. In fact, according to data from WHO and UNICEF, the last few years have been the largest sustained decline in childhood vaccines in about 30 years. 25 million children worldwide missed basic vaccines in 2021 alone.
“You can still get your kids immunized even if it’s a little late. They will still work,” Ingrid assures. “There’s still time to catch up for sure.”
Learn more about pediatric vaccines at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s website.
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