Immunizations are nothing to sneeze at

It’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of complacency regarding infectious diseases. Seasonal maladies such as Influenza receive a lot of publicity, and millions of Americans now get themselves and their children vaccinated annually. But diseases we thought were eradicated or totally controlled are reemerging, and pose significant and often unnecessary risks.

It’s true that vaccine-preventable disease levels in the United States are at or near record lows. But even though most infants and toddlers have received all recommended vaccines by age two, many under-immunized children remain, leaving the potential for outbreaks of disease. Many adolescents and adults are under-immunized as well, missing opportunities to protect themselves against diseases such as Hepatitis B, influenza, and pneumococcal disease.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) works closely with public health agencies and private partners to improve and sustain immunization coverage and to monitor the safety of vaccines. And while the “big picture” is generally positive, there are emerging gaps, primarily the result of misinformation, a lack of compliance and ignorance about the importance of ensuring that you and your children are properly immunized.

Children can’t attend public school, go to camp, compete in many sports or travel outside of the country without a proven medical history of required immunizations. But as adults, we may not have received all the necessary immunizations, some of them may no longer be working effectively, and others, such as the vaccination for tetanus, have to be repeated periodically.

But we humans are procrastinators, and either disregard our physician’s warnings, don’t have a regular physician, or figure we’re already protected.  A perfect example of where this thinking goes awry involves Whooping Cough — known medically as pertussis, which has recently reappeared in Connecticut and in other states.

Pertussis is a highly contagious respiratory tract infection caused by bacteria spread through direct contact with respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The reason for its reemergence, experts believe, is because our bodies may have stopped producing antibodies in response to the vaccinations we received as children, or because some parents are not protecting their children through recommended vaccinations. Although it initially resembles an ordinary cold, whooping cough may eventually turn more serious, particularly in infants. The best way to prevent it is through vaccinations. The childhood vaccine is called DTap. The whooping cough booster vaccine for adolescents and adults is called Tdap. Both protect against whooping cough, tetanus, and diphtheria.

Diphtheria, also prevented through the Tdap booster, is a very contagious bacterial disease that affects the respiratory system, including the lungs. As with pertussis and another common contagious disease, tuberculosis, diphtheria bacteria can be passed from person to person by direct contact with droplets from an infected person’s cough or sneeze. When people are infected, the diphtheria bacteria produce a toxin in the body that can cause weakness, sore throat, low-grade fever, and swollen glands in the neck. Effects from this toxin can also lead to swelling of the heart muscle and, in some cases, heart failure. In severe cases, the illness can cause coma, paralysis, and even death.

The third leg of that triad involves tetanus (lockjaw), which also can be prevented by the Tdap vaccine. Tetanus is caused by bacteria found in soil. The bacteria enter the body through a wound, such as a deep cut. When people are infected, the bacteria produce a toxin in the body that causes serious, painful spasms and stiffness of all muscles in the body. This can lead to “locking” of the jaw so a person cannot open his or her mouth, swallow, or breathe. Complete recovery from tetanus can take months. Three of 10 people who get tetanus die from the disease.

Take simple steps to protect yourself and others

A good rule of thumb is that if you can’t remember if or when you had it, talk to your doctor. Additionally, if you plan to travel outside of the United States or Canada, it’s wise to speak with your physician or an infectious disease specialist about immunizations to consider, such as protection against Hepatitis A, before traveling. In many foreign countries, especially third-world nations, diseases can still be contracted through impure water systems, through food that hasn’t been properly prepared, and by air-borne particles.

But even if you aren’t traveling abroad, it’s important to know your medical history and to obtain a copy of your personal immunization record. That’s especially valuable if you can’t remember if you ever had common diseases such as mumps, chicken pox, rubella and measles, all of which still afflict thousands of Americans. In many cases, vaccinations to prevent these diseases may not have existed when you were a child, but they do now.

If your personal record doesn’t exist or has been lost, your physician can order a simple blood test that checks for the antibodies currently active in your system. He or she can then offer you the missing vaccinations, bringing you up-to-date as required. Typically, you’ll only have to do this once, unlike the vaccination for preventing influenza, which has to be received annually since strains of “flu” mutate or change from year to year.

Protecting ourselves and our loved ones is our most important job. Today’s medical advances and access make that far easier, but only if we each take personal responsibility to ensure that our immunizations are up-to-date. For more information, call toll free 1-800-CDC-INFO (1-800-232-4636) or visithttp://www.cdc.gov/vaccines.

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