With the recent MMR outbreak in California and Arizona, immunizations and public health has become a hot topic in mainstream media. Immunization information in general can be very difficult for parents to research because a simple Google search can provide information that is both based on scientific evidence as well as false and misleading. Here is some basic information about immunizations that will help parents understand the role of vaccines in their family’s health.
History of Immunizations
In 1776, Edward Jenner conducted an experiment with cowpox and showed that infection with cowpox provided protection against a more deadly disease: smallpox. His idea changed the way we looked at disease as well as provided a way to prevent the devastating disease from occurring. Two centuries later the deadly smallpox virus was eradicated. In 1885, Louis Pasteur provided the next breakthrough when he developed a vaccine for Rabies. Salk and Sabin developed vaccines for polio in the 1950’s which proved invaluable in providing protection from another feared and devastating illness. It has been since 1993 there has been a confirmed case of wild poliovirus in the United States. Since then, many other viral and bacterial illnesses have been identified for vaccine development. Current vaccine schedules protect young children from 15 illnesses.
How do vaccines work?
The human immune system is complex and advanced. Your body is constantly bombarded by proteins and particles from the environment we live in. When your body is infected with an organism that causes disease, your immune system is able to recognize the invader and fight back in a series of complex pathways. Your immune system will also make antibodies that will protect your body from attack again so that the immune response will be faster and more potent the next time. Vaccines take advantage of the immune system “memory” by exposing the body to a weakened virus or bacteria, allowing the body to have an immune response and make antibodies for the disease. If you are exposed to the disease again, the response will be bigger and better and the possibility of getting sick from the invader is much less.
If these diseases are rare, why do we still need to vaccinate?
Fortunately, many of the diseases that we vaccinate for are now rare. But they still exist in many areas of the world and enter into our communities through travel and immigration. The diseases are rare in our community because we vaccinate. When a large portion of the community is vaccinated, the disease is unable to spread and the whole community benefits. This concept is known as “herd immunity” and is very important for public health. Herd immunity rates depend on the disease, for example measles requires vaccination rates of 90-95 percent to prevent outbreaks and 80-85 percent rates are needed for polio. As we have seen by recent large outbreaks of measles and pertussis, these diseases spread easily in unvaccinated populations.
Is there a safe “alternative” schedule?
The approved vaccine schedule is rigorously studied for both safety and efficacy (how well it works). The scheduled vaccines are given at times when your child is most at risk for the disease and will receive the maximum benefit from the vaccine. The schedule is studied very closely for safety and has been proven to be extremely safe when given as recommended. Alternative schedules are easily found, but have no scientific evidence of either safety or efficacy and are not recommended to be routinely followed.
While vaccines have been shown to be safe and very effective, questions and concerns often arise. Your medical provider has had years of experience and training in regards to vaccines and is able to address these questions for you.