Dr. J. Scott Davidson
Family and Emergency Medicine Specialist
Why are vaccines important?Diseases that vaccines prevent can be dangerous, or even deadly. Vaccines greatly reduce the risk of infection by working with the body’s natural defenses to safely develop immunity to disease. The goal of public health is to prevent disease. It’s much easier and more cost-effective to prevent a disease than to treat it. That’s exactly what immunizations aim to do. Immunizations protect us from serious diseases and also prevent the spread of those diseases to others. Over the years immunizations have thwarted epidemics of once common infectious diseases such as measles, mumps, and whooping cough. And because of immunizations we’ve seen the near eradication of others, such as polio and smallpox.
How do vaccines work?
When you get an immunization, you’re injected with a weakened inactivated form or fragment of a disease. This triggers your body’s immune response, causing it to either produce antibodies to that particular ailment or induce other processes that enhance immunity. This allows your body’s immune system to recognize and already be prepared to defend against the disease. Then, if you’re ever again exposed to the actual disease-causing organism, your immune system is prepared to fight the infection. A vaccine will usually prevent the onset of a disease or else reduce its severity.
What vaccines are recommended and how often?
Some vaccines need to be given only once; others require updates or “boosters” to maintain successful immunization and continued protection against disease. Because proof of immunization is often a prerequisite for enrollment in school or day care, it’s important to keep your children up to date on their vaccines. The benefit of doing so is that your children will be protected from diseases that could cause them serious health problems. The recommended immunizations for children 0-6 years of age include:
- Hepatitis B
- Diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis
- Haemophilus influenzae type B
- Measles, mumps, rubella
- Varicella (chickenpox)
- Hepatitis A
- Meningococcal (for certain high-risk groups)
At one time or another, each of the diseases addressed by these vaccines posed a serious health threat to children, taking their lives by the thousands; today most of these diseases are at their lowest levels in decades, thanks to immunizations.It’s important to keep your child’s immunizations on schedule and up to date, but if your child misses a scheduled dose he or she can “catch up” later.The complete updated schedule of immunizations for children ages 0-18 can be downloaded from the CDC web site.
The bacteria that cause tetanus enter the body through wounds or cuts. Tetanus can lead to severe muscle spasms, stiffness, and lockjaw — the inability to open your mouth or swallow. A one-time Tdap (tetanus-diphtheria-pertussis) vaccine and a Td (tetanus-diphtheria) booster every 10 years are all it takes to prevent it.
HPV vaccines protect against some strains of human papillomavirus that cause most cervical cancers in women and some throat cancers in men. One of the available HPV vaccines also protects against most genital warts in men and women. HPV is spread by sexual contact. The vaccine can be given to children as early as age 9, but young adults, especially those who have not had sexual activity, can receive the vaccine, too. It’s available for men and women through age 26.
If you’ve avoided chickenpox (varicella) so far, don’t push your luck. You can still get it by being in a room with someone who has it. Adults with chickenpox have a higher risk of complications, hospitalization, and death. For example, varicella pneumonia may be more severe in pregnant women and is a medical emergency. Untreated, almost half of pregnant women with varicella pneumonia die. Since chickenpox puts you at risk for shingles, chickenpox vaccine may offer some protection against shingles, too. It also reduces risk of infection in the community, especially among those who are susceptible but can’t be vaccinated, such as pregnant women. Two doses of the vaccine are administered four to eight weeks apart to people 13 and older.
The virus that gave you chickenpox as a child can strike again as shingles or “herpes zoster” when you’re an adult. Most common after age 60, the painful, blistering shingles rash can cause long-term pain called postherpetic neuralgia. If you get this rash, you can also infect others with chickenpox. If you’re 60 or older, a one-dose vaccine is recommended to prevent shingles.
The CDC and flu experts recommend that just about everyone get a flu vaccination every year. Why? Each year’s vaccine is based on the three or four strains of influenza virus that are expected to be widespread that season. Flu shots are available at most primary care doctors’ offices. And you can get one anytime during flu season.
An adult pneumonia vaccine protects against almost all pneumococcal bacteria that can cause pneumonia, bloodstream infections, and meningitis. Pneumococcal pneumonia can be severe and deadly, killing about 50,000 adults every year. It can also cause bacterial meningitis. It’s recommended if you’re over 65, or if you’re 2-64 and smoke or have asthma, a chronic illness, or a weakened immune system. Your doctor may recommend this vaccine if you’re over 50 and live in an area with an increased risk of pneumococcal disease. Currently there are 2 different forms of this vaccine and both are recommended a year apart. Consult with your primary care doctor to find out which you should have first.
Travel vaccines aren’t just a good idea. Some are required to enter certain countries. Keep current on your routine vaccinations. The CDC also recommends or requires other vaccinations depending on your destination. Plan on getting them 4 to 6 weeks before you leave. See the doctor even if your trip is closer than 4 weeks away. You may still benefit from vaccines or medication. Your doctor can tell you which vaccines can help you stay healthy.