As families gear up for the rapidly approaching school year, many will include a visit to the doctor in their back-to-school preparations. Getting immunized helps protect kids against the onslaught of germs they’ll encounter while mingling with hundreds of other children every day.
But in all the bustle, many parents will overlook the importance of getting immunized themselves. Others will even choose not to immunize their children at all out of fear or misinformation.
But immunizations aren’t just for kids—and they’re just as important now as they were in the 1970s, when they virtually eradicated diseases such as polio and smallpox. Both adults and children at all stages of life should stay up to date on their vaccinations.
In fact, immunization is the best way to prevent the flu. This highly contagious respiratory illness can cause serious health problems, particularly among high-risk populations such as:
- People 65 years and older
- Those with certain chronic medical conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, or heart disease)
- Pregnant women
- Young children
Yet flu vaccination rates remain low. While 41 percent of children and 62 percent of seniors get their flu shots, only 34 percent of working-age adults have been immunized for the flu. Although they’re not necessarily considered high-risk, adults in this age group account for up to 61 percent of flu-related hospitalizations and 62 percent of deaths.
To encourage families to stay up to date on crucial vaccinations, we’re celebrating National Immunization Awareness Month this August. The more people know about vaccines, the healthier they (and their children) will be. Here’s the truth behind some of the questions surrounding immunizations.
Are Immunizations Really Necessary?
Immunizations prevent 2 to 3 million deaths each year. “They’re one of the main reasons global child mortality has plummeted since 1990,” said Caryl M. Stern, president of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF.
Throughout the 20th century, Americans endured an average of more than half a million measles cases per year. By 2010—more than a decade after childhood vaccination rates for diseases such as chickenpox, hepatitis B, measles, mumps and rubella exceeded 90 percent—vaccines had slashed that number to just 63. Immunizations have been so effective that most people have forgotten just how devastating many of these diseases can be.
Retired pediatrician William R. Purcell hasn’t forgotten.
“As a practicing pediatrician for 36 years, I often worked with patients suffering with diseases that have since been widely prevented by immunizations,” he said. “Almost every year there were epidemics of measles, mumps, and chickenpox and often there were some cases of pneumonia, encephalitis, or other complications.”
Today, more than 95 percent of people who receive an MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine become immune to all three diseases. As a result, there are pediatricians working in the practice Purcell started who have never seen a case of measles. “It is wonderful that younger pediatricians rarely see these problems anymore because of immunizations,” he said.
Yet an estimated 1.5 million children around the world still die every year from easily preventable diseases. Why? Because when fewer than 90 percent of a community’s children are immunized, these infectious diseases can take hold and spread once again. In some cases, lack of immunization stems from poverty. Increasingly, however, it arises from parents making a deliberate decision not to vaccinate their children.
“Delaying or declining vaccination has led to outbreaks of such vaccine-preventable diseases as measles and whooping cough that may jeopardize public health, particularly for people who are under-immunized or who were never immunized,” says the Institute of Medicine. For example, states whose policies make it easy to exempt children from immunization were associated with a 90 percent higher incidence of whooping cough in 2011.
Are Vaccines Safe?
Fear often drives the decision not to vaccinate. Much of this fear comes from false reports that certain vaccines can cause autism, brain damage, multiple sclerosis or seizures. Other rumors warn that vaccines are too unreliable to provide any benefit at all.
“These claims would be upsetting if they were based on fact. But they’re not, and they create plenty of fear among concerned parents,” says the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Panels of experts have confirmed again and again that today’s vaccines are safer than ever. In fact, the greatest risks come when children are not immunized.”
When adults decline to vaccinate their children (or themselves), they’re putting others at risk as well as their families. Getting immunized helps prevent disease from spreading to vulnerable members of the community, such as:
- Babies too young for immunization
- Unvaccinated children and adults
- Pregnant women
- The elderly
- Individuals with weakened immune systems
- Those who are allergic to vaccine components
Who Should Get Immunized?
Because kids are often the most vulnerable to vaccine-preventable diseases, they’re the focus of attention during National Immunization Awareness Month. It’s especially important to ensure children are up to date on their vaccinations before they head off to school this fall.
But many people overlook the importance of adult immunizations. Adults who were vaccinated as children may believe they’re fully protected and don’t need any further immunizations. Many don’t bother getting boosters unless they’re planning on traveling out of the country.
As a result, adult immunization rates are lower than they should be, causing more than 50,000 U.S. adults to die each year from vaccine-preventable diseases. Thousands more suffer serious health problems.
How Can I Find a Primary Care Doctor Near Me?
Getting immunized is one of the easiest and most effective ways to prevent a variety of serious diseases. To learn more about the risks, safety and benefits of immunizations, consult a primary care doctor near you.