Immunization Awareness Month
July is most commonly known as the month where we celebrate our independence as Americans. Here in Texas, July is known as one of the hottest times of the year, but something that not everyone might know is that July is also Immunization Awareness Month. Over the past several years immunizations have become a hot topic for debate in the eyes of the public. As a person in the medical field I would like to offer you another prescriptive into this debate that you might not see on TV and social media. Throughout this article we are going to go over why immunization is important, some common myths and misconceptions, and how to move forward with this information.
First, I want to clear up some definitions particularly between immunization and vaccination. According to the CDC, immunization is the process by which a person becomes protected against a disease, typically through vaccination. Vaccination is the act of introducing a vaccine into the body to produce protection from a specific disease. You may have heard some people say that they have immunity to a specific disease like COVID because they caught the disease and didn’t get vaccinated, and while this is true, getting the disease in order to have immunity is not safest way to protect yourself from the disease. With vaccines, you are introducing a small part of a deadly bacteria or virus into your body so that your body can recognize it and mount a response against it. When your immune system is exposed to the bacteria or virus, it will create antibodies which are cells that target that specific disease. Your immune system also creates memory cells which help your body recognize the specific disease and mount an immune response more quickly than if you weren’t previously exposed. Since you are usually only being exposed to a portion of the specific bacteria or virus you are more likely to experience minor or mild symptoms of that disease if you end up contracting the disease after you’ve been vaccinated, compared to more severe symptoms you would experience without vaccination.
I know I talked a lot about these nameless diseases; so, I want to provide you with a few examples of diseases that have been eliminated or almost eliminated due to vaccines. The first example is poliomyelitis. Poliomyelitis is caused by the polio virus which is a highly contagious virus that invades the nervous system and can cause symptoms like paralysis, usually in the legs. However, sometimes the paralysis can creep upwards into your lungs and could stop you from breathing. You can also have symptoms of fever, fatigue, neck stiffness, and limb pain. Children aged 5 and younger are most at risk. There is no cure for poliomyelitis; so, prevention with vaccination is the best way to fight this disease. Since a global initiation to eradicate the disease through vaccination, cases of polio have decreased by 99%.
Smallpox is a disease that has been completely eliminated by vaccines, and the smallpox vaccine was actually the first successful vaccine to be developed back in 1796. Smallpox was caused by the variola virus and would normally present as a rash on the face, arms, and legs. The rash would turn into fluid filled and later pus-filled spots. There was no cure for smallpox and though having a rash with some pustules and some horrible scarring may not seem like a big deal, this disease was fatal in about 30% of those infected. However, thanks to vaccines and a global initiative, the last known case of smallpox was seen in 1977.
These are just a few examples of the amazing things that vaccines have been able to accomplish and are proof that vaccines work and when used correctly can reduce or even eliminate the number of deadly diseases. I also wanted to use these examples to show that vaccines have been around for a long time, and overtime we have continued to make improvements with vaccines. We even have a vaccine now that can protect against certain types of cancers with the HPV vaccine. Hundreds of years of research and development have been done to ensure that these vaccines not only work but are safe as well.
I’ve only been able to scratch the surface of vaccines, immunizations, and their importance in keeping us all safe and healthy. There are textbooks out there which go into more detail about this topic, and these can be overwhelming to comb through. I would encourage you if you have any specific questions or concerns about vaccines/immunizations to talk to your health care provider. They can go over your questions and let you know which vaccines are right for you and your loved ones. I promise they’ll be more than happy to talk to you about it!
Dr. Nieto is a resident physician who sees patients of all ages and provides obstetrical services at Lone Star Family Health Center, a non-profit 501©3 Federally Qualified Health Center operating facilities in Conroe, Spring, Willis, Grangerland, and Huntsville, and serving as home to a fully integrated Family Medicine Residency Program to increase the number of Family Medicine physicians for Texas and our community.