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Vaccines and Adolescent Development

Young children get a large number of vaccines, which help protect them from disease as they grow. But as children become adolescents, they need new immunizations to make sure they stay healthy. This is important because some illnesses become a bigger threat as children get older. No matter how healthy an 11- or 12-year-old is, up-to-date vaccinations are a must.

Vaccines are medicines, usually given as shots, that prepare the body to fight an infection. They have the same germs, or parts of the same germs, as the diseases they prevent. The difference is that they are weak or dead versions of those bacteria or viruses, so they will not make you sick. They do, however, give your immune system the tools, called antibodies, it needs to guard against those germs if you are exposed to them in the future.

Any medical visit provides a perfect opportunity to check that preteens' and teens' immunizations are up to date. Unless an adolescent has an allergy or other medical condition that makes getting these shots too dangerous, the CDC recommends that they should receive four important vaccines starting at age 11 or 12.1

  • Tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis vaccine (1 dose): a booster to protect against these three infectious diseases (pertussis is also called "whooping cough")
  • Meningococcal conjugate vaccine (2 doses) (MCV4, or MenACWY): an immunization to protect against meningococcal disease (like meningitis or sepsis, a blood infection)
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine (2 doses) (Cervarix or Gardasil): this immunization prevents many HPV-related cancers that occur later in life. It is recommended for both boys (Gardasil only) and girls (Cervarix or Gardasil). For adolescents who start the immunization at ages 15-26, or for those who are immunocompromised, three doses are recommended.
  • Influenza (flu) vaccine (every year): a vaccine that is recommended yearly for everyone over 6 months old to protect against different strains of seasonal influenza

Adolescent immunization rates vary by vaccine type and demographic characteristics

The proportion of adolescents receiving immunizations on time continues to improve. In 2017, coverage rates of the three adolescent-specific vaccines were 88 percent for tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (Tdap); 85 percent for meningitis; and HPV vaccine coverage rates of at least one dose were 69 percent for girls and 63 percent for boys.1 By comparison, rates for most recommended early childhood vaccines are at or above 90 percent. Adolescents living in rural areas are less likely to be receive the HPV and meningitis vaccine than adolescents living in urban environments.2

The HPV vaccine is the most recently recommended of the three adolescent-specific immunizations, and has lower coverage rates among teens than the other recommended vaccines.2 Overall, in 2017 about 53 percent of girls and 44 percent of boys ages 13-17 were up to date with the HPV vaccine,1 well under the Healthy People 2020 target of 80 percent. The adoption and follow-through of the HPV vaccine also varies by racial/ethnic group; Hispanic, black, Asian, and multiracial adolescents are more likely to receive at least one dose, and Hispanic, black, and Asian adolescents are more likely to receive more than one dose, compared with non-Hispanic whites.1

For more information, the CDC has the most current data on percent of vaccinated adolescents.


1 Walker T. Y., Elam-Evans, L. D., Singleton, J. A., Yankey, D., Markowitz, L. E., Williams, C. L., Mbaeyi, S. A., … Stokley, S. (2018). National, regional, state, and selected local area vaccination coverage among adolescents aged 13-17 years — United States, 2017. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 2018, 66:874-882 Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/67/wr/mm6733a1.htm?s_cid=mm6733a1_w
2 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). 2016 Recommended Immunizations for Children 7-18 Years Old. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/schedules/downloads/teen/parent-version-schedule-7-18yrs.pdf.

Additional References

National Vaccine Program Office. (2017). How Vaccines Work. Retrieved from https://www.vaccines.gov/basics/work/index.html.

Content created by Office of Adolescent Health
Content last reviewed on August 6, 2019