Protecting our children: it's on all of our minds right now, especially, and it will always be. That is why I decided to write my final blog for 2012 on one area in medicine where we can really provide protection:  vaccination against disease. In fact, vaccination is one of the greatest gifts a parent can give a child.

Fast forward: a smallpox-free world. Smallpox vaccine was given to generations of children around the world, completely eliminating the disease by 1980. So we no longer need to vaccinate our children against smallpox … but smallpox is the only exception.

Vaccines are literally the gifts that keep on giving. When we vaccinate our kids, we protect them now ... and may help to protect future generations. If we keep vaccinating against childhood diseases, maybe our grandchildren will need fewer vaccines.

Here's the vaccine gift list for your 11- or 12-year-olds:

  • Tdap: Tdap protects against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis. The DTaP vaccine your child received years earlier loses its strength, so 11- or 12-year-olds need a booster vaccine known as Tdap, and then they will need a Td booster every 10 years.  Tdap not only protects your child, but also protects the people around them that can die from the flu especially babies, pregnant women, and the elderly.

  • HPV vaccine: The HPV vaccine is given as three doses over 6 or more months to protect against human papilloma virus infection (HPV) and HPV-related diseases. Gardasil is recommended for both boys and girls as it protects against future genital warts and anal cancer in both, penile cancer in males, and cervical cancer in females. Gardasil offers the greatest health benefits if given before having any type of sexual activity. That's why Gardasil is recommended for young girls and boys at age 11 or 12 years.

  • Meningococcal vaccine: Meningococcal conjugate vaccine (MCV4) protects against Neisseria meninigitis, an infection that causes meningitis and sepsis (bloodstream infection) and is recommended for teens to get twice. MCV4 is recommended at age 11 or 12 years and then again at 16 through 18 years of age.

On the other hand, HPV vaccination rates are still much lower than those for any other vaccine. About 53% of teen girls received at least the first dose, but only 35% received the entire three-dose series. Only 8% of teen boys got their first dose, and only 1% completed the series.

Why the low HPV vaccine rates? When asked why their teens did not have the HPV vaccine, parents said they didn't know about it or didn't think their teens really needed it. Not so.

So let's roll up our sleeves. We still have a long way to go to protect our teens from HPV—and history has shown us that we can't let their other vaccinations slide, either.  If your child has missed Tdap, Gardasil, or the meningococcal vaccine, please ask your doctor about them!

It just takes a few seconds. In the eloquent words of my 15-year-old son:  "I'd rather have a needle in my arm for a few brutal seconds than experience one awful week of feeling like crap." (Or worse.)

-By Rima Himelstein