Vaccination is a routine part of healthcare for children, but we often forget that adults benefit from it as well. Vaccination has resulted in great strides for public health by allowing previously life-threatening diseases to slip under the radar. However, we are now seeing an increase in epidemics of diseases that were thought to have been eradicated. These epidemics occur when the rate of vaccination is too low.
Contrary to what many people believe, immunization is still necessary, because we are still seeing – here and elsewhere in the world – diseases that can be prevented through vaccination. Some parents choose not to get their children vaccinated because they are misinformed as to the risks involved, or because they mistakenly believe that their children are protected if others are vaccinated. However, as the number of unvaccinated individuals increases, so does the risk that epidemics will occur.
Here is a brief look at the most common vaccines:
Tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough)
Tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis are three infections caused by bacteria. The tetanus infection attacks the nervous system, causing intense and involuntary muscle contractions.
Diphtheria makes it difficult to breathe. If it isn’t diagnosed early, it can lead to paralysis and even death.
Pertussis is an acute infectious disease that is epidemic and contagious. It is marked by very characteristic coughing fits that can cause vomiting.
Since the vaccine doesn’t offer lifelong protection, it is important to get a booster every ten years, even if you had the vaccine as a child.
Meningitis is an inflammation that strikes the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord. This infection can have serious consequences and can even be fatal. The vaccine has been part of the routine immunization schedule for children for the past few years. It is also administered in adults who are at high risk for contracting the infection.
This common childhood infection causes a red skin rash and severe itching. Possible complications include a bacterial skin infection, a bloodstream infection, pneumonia, and brain inflammation. The chickenpox vaccine is now included in the routine immunization schedule for children.
Measles, rubella and mumps
Measles is an infectious and contagious disease that mainly affects children and that is spread through direct contact. While the infection is benign for most patients who contract it, it can sometimes lead to serious complications such as brain tissue inflammation. Complications may occur several years later and even cause brain lesions.
Rubella is a typically benign infectious and contagious disease that is transmitted through the airways or from a mother to her foetus. Rubella is more serious if it occurs during pregnancy, especially in the first trimester, because it can cause a miscarriage or severe malformations in the foetus.
Mumps is caused by a virus. The infection usually causes swelling of the parotid gland, which is located near the ears, and presents with fever and pain when chewing. It is usually benign, but it can sometimes attack the pancreas, the brain, or the testicles in male patients.
These three infections can be prevented by a single vaccine that is part of the childhood immunization schedule and offers lifelong protection. The vaccine is also recommended for adults who were not vaccinated as children.
The human papilloma virus
The human papilloma virus (HPV) is commonly transmitted through sexual contact. While the virus causes no symptoms in most infected individuals, some develop genital warts. An HPV infection can also cause cervical cancer in women and various other genital cancers in both men and women.
In Canada, the HPV vaccine has been approved for everyone between the ages of 9 and 26. It is part of the routine immunization schedule (administered in grades 4 and 9).
This viral liver infection can have serious consequences. The Quebec government provides this vaccine free of charge to certain at-risk groups, such as patients with other liver infections, persons from certain cultural communities, sexually active homosexual men, and persons living in a detention centre.
This viral liver infection can become chronic and cause serious complications over time. The vaccine is included in the routine immunization schedule in Quebec. School children usual receive a vaccine that protects against both hepatitis A and hepatitis B.
Seasonal influenza (the flu) is a viral infection that affects the respiratory system. It can have serious – and sometimes even fatal – complications. The vaccine doesn’t completely protect against getting the flu, but it greatly reduces the risk of contracting a severe form of the infection. This vaccine in no way protects against catching a cold.
Flu shots are free for many Quebecers, namely pregnant women, young children, persons over the age of 60, people with chronic conditions, and those in contact with at-risk individuals.
A bacterial pneumococcal infection can present in different ways (e.g. pneumonia, meningitis or even a bloodstream infection), and it can have very serious consequences. The vaccine is free for persons over the age of 65, people with a compromised immune system, and individuals with a chronic disease such as asthma, diabetes, or a lung or liver disease.
The routine immunization schedule in Quebec also includes a free vaccine against gastroenteritis caused by rotavirus. It is given to young infants as early as 6 weeks of age. It is a drinkable vaccine, rather than an injection. It doesn’t offer lifelong protection, but effectively protects babies during the period when they are most vulnerable to the serious consequences of “the gastro.”
People who have had chickenpox are at risk for developing herpes zoster (also known as zona) later in life. This is actually a reactivation of the virus in their nerves, which is very painful. While the vaccine against herpes zoster is not part of the immunization programmes covered by the Quebec government, it is recommended in persons over the age of 60.
Are vaccines dangerous?
Vaccines are one of the safest tools in modern medicine. However, as with any medication, they can sometimes have adverse effects, usually minor ones such as pain or redness at the site of injection, discomfort or fever. These effects are temporary and are the body’s normal reactions to the vaccine. In very rare cases, a severe allergic reaction can occur after vaccination, just as when first eating a food to which one may be allergic. This is why you are asked to remain at the doctor’s clinic for some time after the injection.
If you have any question on vaccination, don’t hesitate to ask your pharmacist.