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Is Childhood Vaccination Disrupted by Excessive Use of Antibiotics?

May 16, 2022


Nothing could make the benefits of vaccination easier to understand than the recent COVID-19 pandemic and its catastrophic effects. However, when it comes to vaccinating children and teenagers, many people around the world showed reluctance due to the potential negative effects. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now advises US parents to vaccinate their children aged 5 years and older, stating that the benefits clearly outweigh the risks, less than 10% of children 5 to 11 are now fully vaccinated. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the excessive use of antibiotics.

Overuse of antibiotics is not a new concern, as numerous studies have shown that excessive use should be avoided by both adults and children. Even so, antibiotic use in American children remains high, although it did see a notable drop in recent years—most likely as a result of the social distancing measures imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, with life now returning to normal in most countries around the world, the overuse of antibiotics is likely to return. Unlike COVID-19 vaccination, the use of antibiotics can have lasting effects on kids, and it should be avoided when these drugs are not actually needed. 

What antibiotics are and how to use them

Antibiotics are medicines used to treat or prevent certain bacterial infections, by either killing the bacteria in question or preventing it from spreading. While nobody can deny the benefits of using antibiotics to treat some infections, especially in children—a group more prone to getting infections in the first place—new evidence also points to their detrimental effects. In fact, parents and caregivers should know that numerous mild infections tend to pass on their own, even without antibiotics. Furthermore, antibiotics are useless when it comes to treating viral infections like colds and the flu, and they are not typically recommended when treating chest infections, ear infections, or sore throats.

Moreover, the study recently conducted by the University of Oslo in Norway shows that antibiotics have negative effects on host-microbiota homeostasis, and their excessive use is now considered a serious threat to global public health. In the past few years, studies indicated that children and toddlers who are frequently treated with antibiotics due to their susceptibility to infections, tend to become vulnerable to numerous diseases and infections in later life. While scientists note that awareness about the severe effects of antibiotic use is increasing, the issue could prove to be even more complicated when antibiotic use is linked to childhood vaccination.

Treating children with vaccines and antibiotics

The use of antibiotics in children ages two and younger is associated with lower antibody levels after vaccination, making scientists turn to microbiome alterations. According to a recent study, information about the negative association of antibiotic use with vaccine-induced immunity in adults was already available to doctors and researchers around the world, but the same information about children was not. As part of the study, 560 children were compared—342 with antibiotic prescriptions, and 218 children without antibiotic prescriptions. The results proved that children who had been treated with antibiotics were more likely to have fewer antibodies after vaccination than those who had not been treated with antibiotics. 

However, the fact that antibiotic use in children under the age of two is now associated with lower vaccine-induced antibody levels is not the only concern. Antibiotics not only cause side effects like being sick, feeling sick, bloating, or indigestion and diarrhea, but they also alter the gut microbiome for years to come. This, in turn, means that using antibiotics in early life may increase the risk of childhood obesity, as well as the risk of developing pediatric Crohn’s disease. Although using antibiotics may be necessary when treating some infections in children, recent research shows that early-life antibiotic use can have long-term negative effects.

Looking forward

As the World Health Organization points out, humans have successfully developed vaccines for several dangerous diseases like meningitis, tetanus, measles, and wild poliovirus. Winning the war against these diseases was not only a great victory for humanity, but also an important victory for vaccines—now vital around the world. Antibiotic use is just as important, but excessive use should be avoided in children as well as adults, especially considering the fact that they are now linked to lower antibody levels after vaccination. While children taking antibiotics for a mild illness should not postpone vaccines, the use of antibiotics in children should be considered carefully.