For many families, back to school also means back to the doctor. But when you’re making those annual appointments for your kids, don’t forget to schedule your own exam. August is Immunization Awareness month and Dr. Megan Kuikman, a Family Medicine physician with Dean Clinic, wants parents to remember immunizations aren’t just for kids.
Why Immunizations Matter
Vaccines are important tools that help our immune systems ward off serious disease. They work by delivering small amounts of a live or killed virus into our bodies which allows our immune system to create antibodies that fight the virus. While vaccines don’t contain enough viral strength to make us sick, the reaction they trigger helps our immune system recognize and defend against the virus, thereby protecting itself from potentially deadly infection.
In recent years, some families have started to “opt out” of immunizations, citing that herd immunity will protect them from infectious diseases like polio, measles or pertussis (also called whooping cough). Herd immunity happens when a large enough portion of the population is immunized against a disease. Once a large enough population is protected by the vaccine it prevents the disease from spreading.
This trend toward not vaccinating against these diseases can be dangerous for people who cannot receive the vaccines for medical reasons, such as if they have compromised immune systems or are too young to receive an immunization.
“Herd immunity works best when everyone who is able to receive the vaccine is immunized,” says Dr. Kuikman. “The more people who are protected against an infectious disease, like the measles, the fewer people are available to become infected with the virus, containing its spread.”
Aside from protecting those around you, immunizations can also help you avoid serious illness later in life. For example, versions of the varicella virus can cause both chickenpox and shingles. Once a person has had chickenpox, the virus can live in the body for years and later cause shingles – which is very painful. If you immunize your child with the varicella vaccine, they will then also be protected from shingles.
Unfortunately, growing up doesn’t mean growing out of getting immunized. Even if you were fully vaccinated as a child, protection from vaccines can wear off. You can also be at higher risk for some diseases due to your job, lifestyle, travel or developing certain medical conditions.
For adults age 65 or older, protection against pneumonia is found in the pneumococcal vaccine. This vaccine is available year round through local doctor offices and pharmacies.
If you never received the varicella (chickenpox) vaccine – which became a required vaccine for children starting in 1995 – you can still get protection against shingles. Anyone age 60 or older is encouraged to ask for the shingles vaccine. Younger adults who have not had chickenpox should also be vaccinated against varicella.
Another important set of immunizations protect against Hepatitis A and B. Hepatitis can damage the liver and some people are at a higher risk than others. Talk with your doctor to determine if you need this immunization or any updates to previous immunizations against the disease.
Adults also need booster immunizations for tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis, commonly known as Tdap.
“This vaccine is important in protecting against infections caused by injuries – like stepping on a rusted nail – as well as protecting adults and young children against pertussis, which is commonly called whooping cough,” says Dr. Kuikman. “Since infants are protected by their mother’s immunity to diseases, like whooping cough, it’s important that parents, grandparents and care givers are immunized to offer the best protection.”
A common question always comes up this time of year – do I really need my flu shot? Dr. Kuikman says the answer is “yes.”
“When it comes to the flu, prevention is really the best medicine,” says Dr. Kuikman. “Best practices for prevention include good hand hygiene, receiving an updated flu shot every year and keeping your distance from people you know are sick.”
Because the influenza virus can mutate rather quickly, annual immunizations are encouraged for anyone age six months or older. Every year the CDC works with the World Health Organization (WHO) to determine which strains of the virus are most likely to infect people in the United States. From these predictions, vaccine companies develop new versions of the vaccine to offer what is expected to be the best protection.
Influenza vaccines generally arrive at local doctor’s offices and pharmacies starting in September. It’s important to receive the vaccine early in the flu season because it can take about two weeks for your body to build up sufficient antibodies to ward off infection in the event you are exposed to the virus. Peak flu season in Wisconsin is typically in January or February.
While most people don’t really consider influenza a serious illness, the CDC reports the virus sends an average of 200,000 Americans to the hospital every year.
Immunizations Required for School
Because we are most vulnerable to many of these diseases as children, schools do require all school aged children to receive vaccinations in line with medical recommendations. Vaccinations start soon after birth and continue through high school.
Recently, several diseases that were well controlled by immunizations have started to make a comeback. The resurgence of measles, mumps and even pertussis has been attributed to families refusing or altering the immunization schedule recommended by medical professionals.
“What parents often don’t realize is that their child will be at risk of getting a vaccine-preventable disease during the period of delay and they are putting other children around them at risk as well,” says Dr. Kuikman.
While there are medical reasons for some individuals to miss immunizations – like a compromised immune system or allergy to vaccine ingredients – it’s important to talk with your doctor about the benefits of receiving immunizations on the recommended schedule. Many years of research have gone into determining when each immunization is most effective, how often a booster would be required, as well as the overall effectiveness of the vaccine.
If you have questions about immunization schedules and what immunizations your child may need, you can check with their doctor or take a look at the requirements on the Wisconsin Department of Health website.
New Immunization Recommendations and Vaccine Development
With flu season on the horizon, it is also important to note that this year’s recommendations from the CDC have changed. While all healthy persons over the age of six months should receive the 2016 influenza vaccine, this year the CDC is recommending against the nasal spray vaccine. After evaluating the protection the nasal spray offered to young patients, the CDC determined it is not effective in preventing influenza infections. If you have questions about this year’s flu vaccine, call your doctor’s office. They can help answer any concerns you may have, as well as schedule an appointment for you to get this year’s vaccine.
As research into infectious diseases continues, new vaccines are being developed. In 2006, the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine was approved by the FDA. This series of three injections protects young girls and boys against HPV, a sexually transmitted virus that can develop into several cancers, including cervical cancer. Currently, the CDC recommends that all girls and boys ages 11 to 13 receive the HPV vaccine. If you have questions about this vaccine, talk with your child’s doctor.
Newly emerging diseases are pushing vaccine development, as well. This year, the emergence of the Zika virus has prompted researchers to fast track development of a vaccine that can protect against the mosquito-borne virus. The virus is now known to cause microcephaly in newborn babies – a condition that can have serious effects on a child born with the condition. Once a vaccine is developed, it may become a routinely recommended vaccine for people traveling to areas where Zika cases have been reported, similar to vaccines recommended for Typhoid or Yellow Fever.