Vaccinating Kids With Special Needs


Shielding children from potentially life-threatening illnesses is obviously critically important, and vaccines have helped eradicate or nearly eradicate lethal diseases that plagued the population earlier in our history. While doctors recommend vaccines for all children, it is especially important for children with special needs to be current on their shots.

“They may not have the reserve energy or capacity to overcome disease,” says pediatrician Tisa Johnson-Hooper, M.D., the medical director of the Henry Ford Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities. “They may have more significant illness, prolonged hospitalization, and unfortunately, death.”

Johnson-Hooper notes children with special needs may not have an intact immune system due to other conditions.

“For example, children with sickle-cell disease may not have a functioning spleen, which is necessary to protect them against specific vaccine-preventable bacteria,” she says.

Still, many families opt out of vaccinating their children, which puts them at risk of disease.

“It’s important for parents to understand that you need to vaccinate your child, not only for the health of your child, but for the health of other children,” Dr. Johnson-Hooper says, adding that caregivers and community members in close contact with your child also benefit from the vaccine because it decreases the spread of disease.

Young parents have not lived through widespread disease outbreaks such as polio, and do not have first-hand knowledge of the devastating impacts of other vaccine-preventable illnesses, such as hearing and visual impairments.

Flu season is particularly hazardous for children with neurological conditions such as cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and epilepsy. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children of any age with neurological conditions are more likely to become very sick if they get the flu than those without these conditions.

Vaccines sometimes cause concern for parents, particularly for children with special needs, but Dr. Johnson-Hooper says they are safe and effective.

“Parents want the best for their child. Parents may see a causal link in vaccines and autism,” Dr. Johnson-Hooper adds.

However, she cautions parents not to assume that vaccines led to their child developing autism. Extensive scientific research shows no link between vaccines or the ingredients in vaccines and autism, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Rates of autism are the same in countries where the MMR (Measles-Mumps-Rubella) vaccine is not routinely given.

“We are looking more and more at signs and symptoms of autism earlier,” Dr. Johnson-Hooper says. “More pediatricians are doing developmental screening at six, nine and 12 months.”

Have concerns about vaccines? Prior to your next visit, write down all concerns and questions regarding vaccines to discuss with your child’s health care provider.

To make an appointment with a pediatrician, call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936) or visit

Dr. Tisa Johnson-Hooper is a board-certified pediatrician and serves as the medical director of the Henry Ford Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities. She sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Centers in Hamtramck and in midtown Detroit.

Categories: ParentWell