Vaccinations Save Lives

Find out why the recent measles resurgence endangers the health of our community.

August is National Immunization Awareness Month sponsored by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC promotes both awareness and education about the importance of getting proper and timely immunizations for both adults and children. Now, more than at any other time, public health organizations and medical associations feel compelled to educate the public about the importance of vaccines.

In 2019 the highest number of cases of measles since 1994 has been reported. It was once believed that measles, which can be a very serious and sometimes fatal disease, was going to be eradicated from the United States. That optimism is beginning to fade among many health providers. The resurgence of many preventable illnesses, such as measles, chickenpox, and pertussis (whooping cough) among others, is directly linked to individuals’ refusal to get vaccinated.

Vaccines not only protect you and your family individually but offer immunity to those who because of age or health conditions such as cancer or compromised immune systems, pregnancy, and severe allergies cannot receive vaccines. This is often referred to as herd or community immunity.

It cannot be underestimated the countless lives that have been saved since the advent of vaccine immunization. Those of a certain age can still remember first hand the lines of folks who waited to get a polio vaccine. The devastating disease has been eliminated from the United States, thanks in large part to the polio vaccine.

The basic science behind vaccinations is relatively simple to understand. Vaccines introduce antigens of a particular virus or bacteria which stimulates an immune response in the body. The body will then produce antibodies to fight off the offending pathogen if it is exposed to it at a future time. The pure beauty of vaccinations is that scientist have developed methods to induce the pathogen without it causing infection.

The science of vaccines is slightly more complicated as different methods are used to safely expose someone to pathogens without causing sickness. Measles, mumps and rubella, often combined in one injection as MMR, is an example of live attenuated vaccines. In these cases, a weaker form of the offending bacteria or virus is introduced into the body, and this will not cause illness.

A second type of vaccine uses dead pathogens of certain viruses or bacteria. Miraculously, the body can still develop antibodies to the dead pathogens and stimulate the immune response if reintroduced to these live pathogens in the future. Polio, rabies, and Hepatitis A are examples of this type of vaccine.

In the cases of diphtheria and tetanus, scientist have been able to identify and disable toxins which are produced by certain bacteria. When introduced into the body, the immune system is able to respond to these dead toxins and create antigens in the event of future exposure.

Subunit or conjugate vaccines which create immunity for pathogens such as influenza, pertussis (whooping cough), pneumococcal, and human papillomavirus (HPV) among others work by introducing just a protein or carbohydrate from the pathogen. Again, actual illness is avoided as the body builds immunity against future exposure to these pathogens.

Advances in immunizations are ongoing to develop vaccines for more potential pathogens and to introduce less expensive methods which will hopefully make vaccines more accessible around the world. DNA vaccines are on the horizon as technology advances to use state-of-the-art research to prevent serious diseases and death.

One of the hallmarks of a robust and effective health system is how it works to monitor and assess preventable diseases. The CDC in the United States has worked for over 70 years to ensure the health of all Americans from cradle to advanced age and is an excellent resource to learn more about how vaccinations can keep you, your family, and your communities healthy.        

Whether you have questions about vaccine safety studies or appropriate vaccination schedules, check out www.cdc.gov/vaccines/index.html to get accurate and complete information. Your healthcare provider is another reliable source to consult with questions or concerns about vaccines.

The great news is that vaccinations continue to prevent millions from suffering preventable illness and death. The more knowledge we have about this medical marvel, the better and healthier our society will be.

Timothy J. Hardy, M.D.

Dr. Timothy Hardy, M.D. has been practicing medicine in the community for many years. He received his medical degree from Eastern Virginia Medical School and founded his own practice, Atlantic OB-GYN, in 1990, where he has been providing women with exceptional care ever since. Website: www.atlanticobgyn.com
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