Talking to your doctor about Childhood Vaccines
Except for our annual flu shot, most of us think vaccines are just for kids.
British actress and former Bond girl Jane Seymour was no different - until she got sick and discovered her illness could have been prevented with a simple vaccine. The actress, known most recently for her TV role on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, has since campaigned widely to raise awareness of adult vaccines, including during a trip last year to Canada.
It's obvious public health has made great strides in reducing common illnesses that in the past killed many children - everything from measles to polio. But as Vancouver's public health and preventive medicine specialist Dr. Bonnie Henry points out, there is no strong public health program for adult immunization. "Sometimes they get neglected," she says.
"We tend to be quite complacent," says Henry. "It's really important to know that immunization is not just for children."
But that's what many North Americans do think - despite the fact that more than 40,000 adults die each year of vaccine-preventable diseases. The fact many adults don't realize the benefits of vaccination do not end in childhood is what prompted the American Academy of Microbiology to convene an expert panel on the subject and publish a report entitled Adult Vaccines - a Grown Up Thing to Do.
Adults need to be vaccinated because the immunity we received from the vaccines we got as children can wane over time, says Henry. "A booster for tetanus and diphtheria, given as Td, should be taken every 10 years. And adults should also have a single dose of pertussis vaccine."
Tetanus is all around us, she explains. "It's a bacterium that lives in the soil and can produce a very severe illness. Luckily most of us have been immunized, but that immunity wanes over time."
In BC in 2007, three people died from their tetanus infection and all started out with minor cuts to the skin.
Adults over 65 and those with conditions that increase their chances of complications should receive one dose of pneumococcal vaccine. That vaccine, Henry explains, protects against a bacteria known as Streptococcus pneumoniae. People die from this severe form of pneumonia every year - it's what struck Jane Seymour a few years back.
All adult vaccines are recommended by Canada's National Advisory Council for Immunization (NACI), a board on which Henry sits. NACI also recommends a shingles vaccine for people over the age of 60.
"It doesn't prevent all cases, but it diminishes the severity of the disease and reduces the probability that you'd develop the accompanying nerve pain," says Henry. (The shingles vaccine, however, is not covered by most health programs; it's cost, a whopping $250.)
Some physicians also recommend that adults receive vaccines against Hepatitis A and B, especially those who travel outside North America.
As for whose job it is to remember what vaccine you had and when, Henry says everyone should keep their own record (find one at www.immunize.ca) and talk to their doctors about getting up to date.
"All adult vaccines are effective and safe," she adds. "In flu shots, for instance, having a serious adverse reaction is rare compared to the probability of getting sick."
What's a vaccine?
In Adult Vaccines: A Grown Up Thing to Do, it's explained that a vaccine is a substance that teaches your immune system to recognize a pathogen - a potentially harmful microorganism. Drugs like antibiotics can fight some of these pathogens after they make us sick, but only vaccines can prepare our immune system so certain pathogens never make us sick in the first place. Download the report at www.academy.asm.org.
What and when?
* Keep track of your immunizations by downloading a card from www.immunize.ca.
* For a full list of adult immunizations recommended for Canadians, go to www.phac-aspc.gc.ca.
Polio is on its way to being eradicated, says Dr. Bonnie Henry. India – one of four countries where polio is still present – has been polio free for a year. Polio is still found in Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Smallpox is the first disease we have totally eradicated, and the smallpox vaccine is no longer routinely offered.
Herd immunity is a buzz phrase in immunization circles. It's when you have enough immunity in the surrounding population (or herd) that it provides a measure of immunity for people (or animals) who have not developed immunity.
Living healthy only gets you so far
Adults who shun their recommended vaccines say they do other things to stay healthy - like eating well and exercising. But healthy living can only do so much. Think of getting your shots as "insurance," says Dr. Bonnie Henry. And adults who are immunized help to protect the very young around them. Adults who are no longer immune to pertussis, for instance, can pass it to young children who become seriously ill.
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