By Jessica Smith, sponsored by Kaiser Permanente
While immunizations are important year-round, the month of August is considered National Immunization Awareness Month. The goal is to bring to the public eye the importance for people of all ages to receive and update their vaccinations.
Why is this important?
“We tend to forget that there were large epidemics of serious illnesses that hit tons and tons of people, and we’ve been so good about immunizing that we’ve almost lost touch with why we do them,” says Dr. Patricia Dietzgen, who practices family medicine with Kaiser Permanente in Frisco. “It wasn’t that long ago that polio was rampant, and people got seriously ill, and (had) devastating, life-threatening permanent disability from it.”
Diseases like polio, pertussis (also known as whooping cough), diphtheria and others are not a thing of the past, but have passed out of public concern as strict immunization schedules have resulted in fewer cases, Dietzgen says. But if people stop vaccinating, those diseases can rapidly return to the forefront, as was the case with a measles outbreak in Los Angeles in 2015.
As reported by the Lost Angeles Times in April of last year, California epidemiologist Dr. Gil Chaves “said immunization rates in some schools are at 50% or lower, creating an ideal environment for the virus to spread quickly.”
“They don’t ever go away,” Dietzgen says. “It’s not like they’re completely eradicated. If you (aren’t) constantly vigilant, they’re going to come back.”
How does it work?
A vaccination injects a small amount of a germ into the body, which the immune system easily fights off, therefore making the recipient immune to the disease without having to go through the potentially life-threatening process of fighting the germs at full strength.
Doctors like Dietzgen recommend that patients follow an immunization schedule, based on age (see fact box). Some vaccinations can be taken care of with one shot, while others require several booster shots over a period of time, which Dietzgen says is to build immunity safely in phases.
Who needs them?
In short, everybody.
“It’s the idea of public health, we’re in this together,” Dietzgen says. “If we all immunize our kids and if we immunize ourselves as adults, with these booster immunizations, we’re going to cut these epidemics down.”
While some people ascribe to the idea of “herd immunity” — protection from diseases not through receiving a vaccine but because the majority of people nearby have received a vaccine, therefore reducing the possibility of the non-vaccinated ever coming into contact with the disease — this only works if the majority of the population is immunized.
“It’s only because of a concerted effort of everyone — not just in the United States but worldwide — we’ve been able to lessen the frequency of these serious illnesses,” Dietzgen says. “The immunizations protect us but it’s very important that everyone do it, or as many people as we possibly can, because if we don’t, and we don’t keep these illnesses at bay, they don’t ever go away.”
Those most at risk for these diseases are the very young, the very old and people with compromised immune systems, such as diabetics or those going through heavy medical treatments, like chemotherapy. Those people should definitely be up-to-date on immunizations, Dietzgen says. However, there are a few vaccines that healthy adults should take, such as the T-Dap for tetanus and whooping cough, recommended roughly every 10 years.
Are vaccines safe?
This question has been on many minds, especially in the past few years as anti-vaccination movements have grown. Despite trends of delaying or even avoiding vaccines altogether, Dietzgen says that immunization remains important.
“In my opinion, following the scheduled recommendations is best, but even delaying vaccinations is still better than not vaccinating your child at all,” Dietzgen says. “I think that’s hugely important. The risks of immunizing are pretty minimal. They really are very safe.”
While Dietzgen says it’s rare for a child to have an allergic reaction to a vaccine, even if it occurs, it often isn’t life-threatening.
“It’s extremely, extremely rare to have any kind of reaction, but the benefits are tremendous. You’re protected from 12, 13 seriously life-threatening illnesses that are out there,” she says.
After receiving a vaccine, some people may fall ill with a mild version of the illness, but, Dietzgen says, “it’s just infinitely less than if you’d been un-vaccinated.”
Those who aren’t recommended to receive vaccinations are in extreme circumstances, she says, such as someone whose immune system is severely compromised, particularly after any kind of organ transplant, where arousing the immune system could lead to rejection and further complications.
Where can I get vaccinated?
At your doctor’s office or the public health department, Dietzgen says. While most insurance companies will cover basic vaccinations, the local public health department will likely also offer immunizations either for free or for a greatly reduced rate.