A New Tool to Manage Your Child's Vaccine Schedule

The Web-based program produces a personalized timetable, avoiding too many shots at once.

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Children often miss getting recommended vaccines on schedule, leaving parents and pediatricians scratching their heads as to how to catch up. A new Internet scheduling tool from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is designed to make that chore a little easier.

It took me about 10 seconds to download the tool on my desktop, then click to bring up the scheduler and type in my daughter's name and birth date. The parent or pediatrician adds in which shots the child already has received, and the scheduling software (designed by a professor and graduate student at Georgia Tech), weighs the complex and often conflicting rules for each immunization, and then cranks out a nifty, printable color-coded chart showing how much space to leave between catch-up doses, as well as regular shots.

Parents who want to space out their child's shots further apart than the usual well-baby visits will also find the chart-maker to be a handy tool, although that's probably not quite what the CDC had in mind.

Looking at the chart I'd made, I could see that my daughter is facing a raft of scheduled shots at her next doctor's visit, including her second measles-mumps-rubella (MMR), which, because it contains weakened live viruses, can cause side effects like fever or a rash, and in rare cases, seizures. Those reactions are less common now that the vaccine is no longer bundled with the varicella vaccine. But some parents are concerned that infants are getting too many shots—the 2008 Child & Adolescent Immunization Schedules, recommended by the federal Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Academy of Family Physicians, suggests 26 doses of vaccines before age 2, to protect against 15 contagious diseases, from polio to hepatitis B.

Others worry that vaccines may be implicated in causing autism, a theory currently on trial in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C. The federal government removed one of the original plaintiffs in that trial, Hannah Poling, after agreeing with her parents' contention that vaccines exacerbated a mitochondrial disease the girl had, triggering autismlike symptoms. Most scientists think there's no connection between autism and the MMR vaccine or the preservative thimerosal, but the whole question of possible environmental causes for autism needs more research, as my colleague Dr. Bernadine Healy has recently pointed out.

Bob Sears, a pediatrician and son of pediatrician William Sears, of "attachment parenting" fame, notes that spacing out vaccines is more of a hassle for parents—more doctors visits, more insurance co-pays. But he thinks spacing them out may help decrease the risk of side effects, and also makes it easier figure out which vaccine may be causing side effects if a child does have them. There's scant scientific evidence for that, but parents do have quite a bit of flexibility: For instance, the first MMR shot can be given any time between 12 and 18 months, according to the CDC, and the third polio shot between 6 and 18 months.

Whichever way you decide to manage your child's shots, this new scheduling tool can make the daunting task of keeping track of childhood immunizations a little bit easier. Given that it's now prime time for getting immunizations up to date for school in the fall, any help is welcome news indeed.

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Does the CDC tool look helpful, or do you just leave that up to your doctor? Our friends at BettyConfidential want to know.