It is fitting, with August being National Immunization Awareness month that I discuss the importance of vaccines and the need to be up to date on the most current recommendations. The adult vaccine schedule has become almost as complicated as the childhood vaccine schedule, but I will try to simplify it. In looking at vaccines, it is important to understand how they work, why we need them and what we should receive. As an internist, or primary care doctor, I take care of all patients ages 16 and up and treat as well as prevent disease.
Our immune systems are amazing and powerful. Whenever we encounter an infection, we generate antibodies to fight the infection. These antibodies will remain available in the body to fight off any future exposure of the infection. The key to vaccination is to make sure that the body learns how to fight infection without having to go through actually being sick or ill. Vaccines are created in many different ways but essentially involves injecting into the body a key component of the infection so that the body can recognize and mobilize the immune system to fight off future exposures. This component could be a weakened form of the virus or killed bacteria, a DNA marker or even a coating of the bacteria. Once the body has been taught to recognize the illness, it will remember for many years how to keep that infection from hurting the body.
Now that you know how vaccines basically work, you need to know why you need them. Infections are classified into either bacteria, virus or fungus. Antibiotics can mostly treat bacteria, antifungals for fungus but very few viruses can be treated. In addition, some infections are either very difficult to treat, occur too rapidly for treatment, or the patient wouldn’t be able to receive the treatment. The best way to stop these infections is to prevent them from ever attacking the body in the first place. Infections like pneumonia, meningitis, and the flu can be so fatal that prevention is the only and best option. Aside from an allergy to the vaccine, there is no reason to avoid vaccines. You cannot get the infection from the vaccine. You cannot get autism from the vaccine and they are both safe and effective. Some side effects can include discomfort at the injection site, low grade temperature, chills and body aches but these can resolve in a few days.
The vaccine schedules can be found at http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/schedules/hcp/adult.html and www.immunize.org. These are two excellent resources and should be used for information on vaccines. So many websites have wrong and misleading information. It is important to stay with the facts. Many vaccines are age specific or based on certain risk factors. Every year a flu shot is needed because Influenza can be devastating at any age. The vaccine usually becomes available in late August and the season lasts through May. Unless allergic to eggs or other components to the vaccine, everyone should receive the annual flu shot. Pneumonia vaccines are available for all patients over 65 or under 65 with certain risk factors, such as diabetes, heart disease or lung disease. Different types are available and both are needed at different times. We also have vaccines for Hepatitis A and B which can cause liver disease and vaccines for meningitis are also available for college students. Everyone needs a tetanus vaccine to prevent a bacterial infection that causes paralysis and adults should also receive a whopping cough vaccine, especially if around newborns. The shingles vaccine prevents a painful and blistering rash that can lead to nerve damage and the human papilloma virus vaccine prevents many forms of cancer.
As you can see, there are numerous ways to prevent infection and stay healthy. Your doctor, not a pharmacist or other non-medical professional, is the best person to discuss what vaccines you need and how to get them. I hope this information was helpful and I encourage you to discuss your vaccines with your doctor so you can protect yourself and your loved ones from many infections. Disease can be scary but they do not have to be fatal.