Closing the Immunization Gap
Immunization is essential for every member of the family.
Immunization, along with sanitation, is still one of mankind’s most effective interventions to reduce disease and death from infectious diseases.
We all know that if a person gets chicken pox or measles once in their lives, they are mostly immune from getting it again. This happens because the presence of the germ in our body leads to the formation of special antibodies that protect us. Immunization is the process of artificially inducing this protection from different diseases in people, without them becoming sick! This is generally, but not always, done with vaccines - special injections created to produce protective immunity in the body.
There are currently at least 17 different diseases for which vaccines are now considered the ‘standard of care’. Most of these vaccines are part of national immunization programs in all developed countries, including here in the UAE. In the decades since childhood vaccines were introduced and adopted globally, we have seen the complete eradication of diseases like smallpox and a massive reduction in the number of young children dying of measles, diphtheria and polio. Childhood vaccines are now universal in nearly every country, although the percentage of children actually receiving vaccines can vary hugely. Where resources and infrastructure is lacking, a higher proportion of the population remains at risk.
But did you know that there are recommended vaccines for healthy adults too? Many of the vaccines given in childhood also require ‘booster shots’ for adults. These vaccines are administered following a completed course of vaccines in childhood, to top up the immunity of in adulthood. Some adults do not remember being immunized when they were young, and some may not have completed the entire vaccination course. This may leave them vulnerable to illnesses such as measles and hepatitis. Many childhood illnesses are more serious in adults than children. Another important vaccine is the tetanus shot, which protects us in case of any trauma or accident. These vaccines can be given any time between the ages of 18- 64 years and are safe and effective.
Some healthy people may need vaccines as part of a preparation for a trip to a country where certain infections are more prevalent, for example the meningitis vaccine for certain countries in Africa and the typhoid vaccine for South Asia. It is always a good idea to consult a doctor, who can advise you about the health risks for travel to a particular area. Bear in mind that vaccines do need a minimum of two weeks before they actually start protecting you, so allow at least this much time before you travel when you schedule a visit.
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People who suffer from chronic underlying illnesses, such as heart failure, or asthma are at particular risk of becoming very ill from even minor infections. Vaccines are an important part of good preventive care for these patients. This includes a pneumococcal vaccine, which is highly recommended for these patients, as well as ALL people over 65 years of age, according to the US national guidelines. Some countries may have a slightly different schedule.
With advancing technology and improved travel, the world has become a much smaller place. The recent outbreak of Ebola has demonstrated clearly how diseases from remote parts of the world can effectively spread and pose a real risk in other parts of the world. While there is currently no public vaccine for Ebola, there are vaccines available for other transmissible illnesses like influenza. The common ‘flu resulted in an estimated 397,236 hospitalizations in the US in the year 2013-2014, according to CDC, the national agency monitoring these figures. There are effective vaccines for influenza that are now recommended for everyone over the age of six months. The influenza virus is notorious for mutating into a different strain and often every year, so annual vaccines are needed. When a large proportion of people in a society are vaccinated, not only are they protected, other more vulnerable populations like the elderly or young children are also protected because there are fewer diseases spreading around the community. This is called ‘herd Immunity’. It is an effective strategy to provide protection for everyone.
However, not all vaccines are appropriate for everyone. Individuals need to be assessed by a healthcare professional, who may ask questions about allergies, other underlying medical conditions and sometimes even the family history. The patient will then be advised on the vaccines are recommended for them and also on the chances of having any adverse reaction. The vast majority of vaccines are considered safe for the specific populations they are meant for, but common and often minor symptoms like low grade fever and body aches do happen frequently. This is why vaccines should always be given by experienced medical personnel and in a supervised environment. The other important aspect of having a vaccine is to get a document or a card detailing the vaccine and the date it was administered. This information becomes a very important part of your health and medical history and must be kept safely.
by Dr. Moena Zain, Infectious Diseases Specialist at American Hospital Dubai
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