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New baby? Yes, family members' vaccinations matter

By Keith Roach, M.D. on

DEAR DR. ROACH: I'm expecting a baby in a few months, and my doctor told me that everyone who will come into contact with her must get the Tdap vaccine. If some family members don't get it, should I keep them from meeting the baby until she's old enough to be fully vaccinated? -- H.C.

ANSWER: Hope and congratulations are in order. May your baby be healthy.

It's clearly recommended that parents, siblings, grandparents and other close contacts with an infant be up to date on their Tdap vaccine.

"T" is for tetanus, which is not transmitted from person to person. "D" is diphtheria, which is extremely rare in this country. The concern is the "AP," acellular pertussis, because although it causes an annoying and long-lasting cough in adults, it is life-threatening to newborns. In the pre-vaccine era, thousands of infants died from pertussis (also called "whooping cough," even though adults don't whoop), mostly infected by adults.

I recommend that all close contacts be immunized, and that you take care to protect your baby from anyone with a cough (immunized or unimmunized, since the vaccine isn't perfect) until she is fully immunized. Babies get the DTaP vaccine at 2, 4 and 6 months, then boosters at 18 months and 4 years.

DEAR DR. ROACH: A letter that appeared in your column recently surprised me greatly. The writer, who was 86, referred to having a colonoscopy "two years ago." I am 93, and about 15 years ago I was rejected for a colonoscopy because I was over 75; I was told that it had just been learned that the risk of perforation was too high after that age. So far, I have escaped the consequences of not having a colonoscopy, but my wife of 67 years was not so fortunate. Earlier this year, she was diagnosed with colon cancer that had spread to her liver. She died 23 days after the diagnosis. What is the current thought on colonoscopy for seniors? -- T.

ANSWER: I am sorry to hear about your wife.

All medical procedures have both risks and benefits, and the doctor's job is to make recommendations based on his or her knowledge of the patient and the patient's health, medical conditions and preferences. Guidelines are helpful, but they don't apply to every patient. The United States Preventive Services Task Force's guidelines are clear that people 75 and under generally are good candidates for screening; those between 76 and 85 should have an individualized approach; and screening over 85 is not recommended.

Risks of complications from colonoscopy definitely increase as people get older. Of course, some 85-year-olds are healthier than others: One good rule of thumb is that those with a life expectancy that is less than 10 years not get screened; however, physicians aren't always so good at making that determination. I bet the doctor who decided not to screen your wife probably regrets it now; I can't cast any blame (especially not knowing any details) though, since it's also possible that she would have had a complication from the colonoscopy.

Physicians do not want to do something to a patient that will cause harm. Of course, there are times when NOT doing something causes harm, too (like not getting a colonoscopy), but we may be more likely to err on the side of caution.

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