Why are we seeing contagious diseases like measles making such a strong comeback when only 25 years ago, they were nearly eliminated in the United States?
With so much health information available from so many sources, it can be challenging to know where to look when making decisions about your health. Immunizations (or vaccines), is one of those topics where we can see these challenges taking place. Measles, for example, is a disease prevented by vaccines, but since the beginning of 2019, over 700 cases have been confirmed by the Centers for Disease and Control (CDC), the “worst start to the year for measles in a quarter century,” as reported by the Washington Post.
Education about vaccines and their purpose is a major piece of the puzzle. The first vaccine was developed in 1796, when an English physician named Edward Jenner noticed that the introduction of the cowpox virus prevented smallpox contraction in an eight-year-old boy. By the mid-20th century, researchers following Jenner’s lead developed vaccines for polio, measles, mumps and rubella, which reduced rates significantly.
Today, vaccines contain weakened or dead germs that cause the disease, which allows for the immune system to create antibodies against it. For example, we often see pharmacies offering flu shots in the fall and winter; where an inactive (killed) version of the influenza virus is included in the vaccine formula.
Over the years, vaccines have saved millions of lives and prevented countless cases of diseases, but education needs to continue for all of us to keep our understanding current. Vaccines are our most effective method for preventing life-threatening illnesses among people of all ages, especially the very young and old. Vaccination does not only keep you and your family safe, but also society as a whole. Although diseases like polio and smallpox are virtually eliminated, there can be the possibility for the disease to reappear like the measles have.
What kind of diseases can be prevented with vaccines? Vaccines are available for 16 potentially harmful diseases: chickenpox, diphtheria, hepatitis A and B, human papillomavirus (HPV), hemophilus influenza type B (Hib), measles, pneumonia, meningitis, mumps, polio, rotavirus, rubella, shingles, tetanus, and pertussis (whooping cough).
There are a couple of common myths about vaccines:
Myth 1: Vaccines contain many harmful ingredients.
Vaccines contain ingredients that allow the product to be safely administered. The majority of vaccines have dead or inactivated organisms, so it is extremely unlikely to contract diseases from them. Also, ingredients such as thimerosal, mercury-containing compound, and formaldehyde are at a dose lower than the dose we are naturally exposed in to our environment. In general, we are naturally exposed to mercury and formaldehyde in food and products such as contact lens solution, cosmetics and more.
Myth 2: Vaccines causes autism and sudden infant syndrome (SIDS).
There is no scientific evidence that links vaccines to the cause of autism or SIDS. Vaccines are very safe, and usually cause temporary and minor issues, such as a fever or sore arm. It is rare to experience a very serious health event after vaccinations.
Although more than two centuries of medical research and practice have gone into our national understanding of vaccines, the myths perpetuated by the breadth of misinformation online or through peers can be powerful when someone tries to protect themselves or their family.
For example, northern California cities like Berkeley and Santa Cruz had schools in which nearly one third (30 percent) of kindergartners had been granted medical exemptions from state-required vaccines during the last school year. This is happening in spite of a state law signed by Governor Brown in 2015 to prevent parents from citing personal or religious beliefs as reasons they would not vaccinate their children. This means that in some cases, families opposed to vaccination are finding physicians in their communities that are willing to help.
In my own community, the City of Santee, I have peers that know too well the effects of vaccine-preventable diseases. Like measles, polio is another example of a sometimes-deadly disease that has been nearly eliminated by vaccines.
John Morley, a member of the Santee-Lakeside Rotary club thinks back to when he contracted Polio at the tender age of four years old, prior to the vaccine, spending a year in the Shriners Hospital.
While he is still actively involved in the community, polio left John on crutches and with only one thing to say, “Get vaccinated!”
I’m proud of my community’s efforts to spread awareness locally about vaccine preventable diseases like measles, the flu, and polio. The Santee-Lakeside Rotary participates in a program called the International PolioPlus Committee, founded in 1988 by the National Rotary, the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the CDC with the goal of eliminating the disease completely throughout the world.
The Grossmont Healthcare District partners each year with local nonprofit Champions for Health and the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency to offer flu shots for children and adults at Kids Care Fest, our annual health fair geared toward providing health screenings and education.
Who should be immunized?
The majority of vaccines are administered from birth through 18 years old, but adults may also receive additional vaccine doses if needed, since some childhood vaccines can wear off over time. In addition, a vaccine recommended for all ages on a yearly basis is the influenza or flu vaccine. For more information on the recommended vaccination schedule for children and adults: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/schedules/easy-to-read/adolescent-easyread.html
I’d like to talk to my doctor about immunizations. What if I do not have one?
For residents that may have challenges accessing insurance or healthcare, San Diego County has an immunization program, which provides vaccines at county public health centers to children and adults who do not have health insurance.
If you have any question about your eligibility or would like more information on immunizations in general, you can visit the San Diego County Immunization Program website.
Don’t be the next victim of a disease that could have been prevented.
About the Author
Virginia Hall is a retired Registered Nurse. A nursing school graduate of Grossmont College (1978), Hall worked in healthcare from 1973 to 2004. Her nursing background includes working in several local hospitals, emergency rooms, clinics, and research facilities. She has served on the Grossmont Healthcare District board of directors since November 2016.