Commentary: Health department highlights immunization awareness
August is National Immunization Awareness Month and so it is a good time to review the incredible impact vaccines have had on diseases and to stress the importance of continuing to vaccinate against serious illnesses. Compared to the pre-vaccine era, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has published data that show that measles, mumps, rubella, invasive Hib, diphtheria, and tetanus have all been reduced by more than 98 percent in the U.S. Smallpox has been eradicated and polio infections have been reduced essentially to zero in the U.S. Also, it is cheaper to prevent these diseases than it is to treat them. Multiple studies now show that vaccines not only reduce disease but result in substantial medical and societal cost savings.
The idea behind vaccines is to stimulate the immune system to resist specific infections. Vaccines allow people to develop immunity to diseases without suffering the symptoms and complications from the actual diseases. Vaccination is a great form of prevention.
Most of the vaccines prevent communicable diseases, infections that can pass to others. So, when you vaccinate you generally not only protect yourself but those around you such as classmates, co-workers, and family. An important concept in immunization science is community immunity, sometimes referred to as herd immunity. Community immunity is reached only when a large majority of the population is immune. Having high levels of immunity helps protect those who are too young to be vaccinated, did not respond robustly to vaccination, have lost protection with time, or have medical conditions that affect their immune system.
Not all our vaccines are capable of eliminating infections in the U.S. Unlike the smallpox, measles, and polio vaccines that are effective enough to stop outbreaks if enough people get vaccinated, the current pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine decreases the chance of infection but cannot completely eliminate transmission. Still, the pertussis vaccine has greatly reduced the number of infants who get whooping cough and the number of deaths in infancy. Most babies get pertussis from a household contact, often the mother. It is very important for women to get the pertussis vaccine with each pregnancy.
When people are together in closed environments, infections spread more easily. We see outbreaks of infectious diseases in daycares, schools, dormitories, and group living arrangements. When a daycare or school has low vaccination rates, outbreaks are more likely. When your child is immunized on time, you reduce not only their risk but the risk to those around them.
As we near the beginning of another school year, please see the Shots for Schools website (http://www.shotsforschool.org) for guidance on the immunizations children need. If you are getting ready for college, be sure you are up to date on recommended vaccines. The meningococcal vaccine is recommended for young adults, especially first-year college students living in residence halls. Also, if you are traveling internationally, check with your medical provider that you are up to date before you go. Remember, this generation of children doesn’t have to get the smallpox shots because the disease is no longer around. If we keep vaccinating now, future generations may never see some other serious diseases.
Submitted to The Union by Ken Cutler, M.D., M.P.H., Health Officer for Nevada County and by Robert Oldham, M.D., M.S.H.A., Health Officer for Placer County.
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