National Immunization Awareness Month

National Immunization Awareness Month

"As summer comes to an end and fall sneaks up on us all, I want to spend a little time talking about vaccinations. Whether your children are headed back to school, off to college, or it's just another change of season for you and your family; it's a time when we all start thinking about what vaccinations are recommended, and asking ourselves "should I get them?" I am an Internal Medicine Physician, so I won’t spend a lot of time going over childhood vaccinations, but I do have patients who are upperclassmen. These are the patients who need to make sure they have received the meningitis vaccine. In fact, there are two different meningitis vaccines to treat different bacteria that can cause this serious disease. In addition, ever since the H1N1 influenza virus pandemic of 2009, it is recommended that EVERYONE receive the Flu vaccine. This is because when this new strain emerged there was no natural immunity. We saw hundreds of young, healthy adults being hospitalized and even dying. The truth is that the effectiveness of the Flu vaccine varies from year to year, but there is a good reason for this variation. Each year the CDC collects data about which strain of influenza is causing most of the disease in Europe (it hits them before us), and make recommendations based on that information. In addition, influenza is constantly changing, something we call antigenic drift. Basically, the virus makes small changes in its protein structure which is where the Flu vaccine works. The scientists who produce the vaccine have to make certain predictions about how they need to make the vaccine different to account for this “drift”. The point is that it is not as exact as we would like but it is definitely better than no vaccination at all.

For patients over 65 years of age it is recommended to get two different pneumonia vaccines (Pneumovax and Prevnar). Together these protect you against 85% of all pneumonia causing bacteria. They are also recommended for people who may be immunocompromised. That means people who are on chemotherapy or immunotherapy (medicines that are used to treat cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis or inflammatory bowel disease), people who take anti-inflammatory steroids for any reason (includes medicines like prednisone), and people who are diagnosed with HIV or AIDS. And finally, it includes people who don't have a spleen (due to surgery), or their spleen isn't working (like with sickle cell anemia).There are also vaccines now to prevent shingles (starting at age 50), and HPV (the virus which often causes cervical cancer in women) for ages 11 to 26 for both women and men – because HPV can cause some devastating problems for men as well.

I want to end this post on vaccine safety. There is a lot of misinformation on the internet with regard to just about everything nowadays. The “big controversy” started in 1999 when a doctor named Andrew Wakefield had an article published in a respected medical journal saying there was a link between vaccines and autism. There were concerns about how the study was done, but other studies had to be completed before it could be claimed as true (or false). There have now been over 12 studies, including a database total of over half a million children that shows it is completely untrue and that Dr. Wakefield had falsified his results to support his bias (he has since lost his medical license for unethical behavior). As is true with any medicine you take, or any “new food” you try, it is possible that a few people will have a reaction to a component in a vaccine. There is also a small group of patients who can develop a condition called Guillain-Barre syndrome (risk < 0.001%) which can resolve on its own, but sometimes require a hospital admission for observation.

Vaccinations are not risk free, but the benefit of avoided illness (and lessened symptoms for those who may still become ill) far outweigh the risks. Just as a comparison, the risk that you will be struck by lightning in your life is 1 in 3000. So get your vaccinations completed, and let’s keep you happy and healthy."

- Craig Kopecky, MD

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