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August 6, 2008 > Are You Protected?

Are You Protected?

Physician Discusses Importance of Staying Current on Vaccinations

Not that long ago, polio, a viral infectious disease, was one of the most dreaded childhood diseases of the 20th century in the United States. Epidemics in the early 1900s, which left thousands paralyzed, spurred the "Great Race" for a vaccine.

In the early 1950s and early 1960s, vaccines for polio were developed, thereby drastically reducing the annual number of polio cases from hundreds of thousands to around a thousand. Today, the polio vaccine is just one of many given during childhood to prevent many infectious diseases, but the not too distant past serves as a reminder of the invaluable protection these vaccines serve.

"Simply put, the purpose of vaccinations is disease prevention," says Dr. Hoang Trinh, Washington Township Medical Group family medicine physician. "It's always better to prevent disease rather than treat it. Not only do vaccines prevent disease, they also protect those who come in contact with you which helps to protect the community from outbreaks of dangerous infectious diseases."

Annually, the month of August is recognized as National Immunization Awareness Month, and serves as an opportune time for adults and parents of young children to increase their awareness of immunity through vaccination.

"Studies have shown that vaccines do help prevent infectious diseases and save lives by protecting against such diseases like small pox, polio, diphtheria and measles just to name a few," according to Dr. Trinh. "Other serious diseases like tetanus, mumps, Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), rubella (German measles) and pertussis (whooping cough) were also once common infectious diseases that have all been drastically reduced and controlled through vaccinations."

Dr. Trinh explains that vaccines help the body's immune system, a defense network that helps fight disease, by prompting it to produce antibodies, which are specific types of proteins the immune system uses to identify and neutralize foreign objects, such as bacteria and viruses.

"Antibodies fight off invading infections, helping you get over the illnesses caused by viruses or bacteria," according to Dr. Trinh. "These antibodies stay in the body and prevent you from getting the same diseases again. This is called immunity. The vaccines contain weakened or killed bacteria or viruses. By making your body think it's being invaded by these viruses or bacteria, vaccines enable your body to recognize these pathogens when you come into contact with them and help fight them off."

For infants and young children whose immune systems are immature, vaccinations are particularly important to prevent disease. Before even leaving the hospital, infants will receive their first Hepatitis B vaccination, with the second to be given a month later.

Vaccinating against Hepatitis B at birth actually represents a fairly recent
trend, which Dr. Trinh says raises an important point about vaccination schedules.

"Many times, after reviewing patients' immunization records, I find they're due for many important vaccines they were unaware of," Dr. Trinh notes. "Guidelines for vaccines tend to change; what was recommended five years ago might not be the same now so it's important to make sure you have the most current information."

Dr. Trinh recommends seeking out the current guidelines for vaccinations for both children and adults, as published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other health organizations.

Unlike many other vaccinations, one in particular requires an annual booster - the flu vaccine, which protects against different strains of the influenza virus. Dr. Trinh explains why it is necessary to get vaccinated each year.

"The reason you get a flu shot annually is because there are hundreds of flu strains and the strain can be different year to year. The World Health Organization (WHO) tries to predict what the common flu strain will be for the year and will make a specific vaccine for that flu virus. In effect, each year you're getting a different type of flu shot."

Flu season generally runs between October and April, so early to mid-fall is a good time to start thinking about scheduling an appointment for the vaccination. In the absence of a vaccine shortage, Dr. Trinh recommends that all those eligible for the vaccine receive it to protect themselves and those around them.

High risk groups for the flu include children 6 months to 2 years of age, pregnant women, individuals age 50 and older and those with chronic medical problems such as asthma, emphysema or cancer, according to Dr. Trinh.

Because certain populations, including infants under 6 months cannot receive the flu vaccine, it is important for caregivers, including grandparents, and others that come into contact with susceptible populations, to get vaccinated in order to avoid transmitting the virus to them, he adds.

Staying current on vaccinations is also very important for those who will be traveling to various parts of the world.

"The main point with travel vaccinations is to make sure you're up-to-date on boosters since immunity from childhood vaccinations can decrease over time," Dr. Trinh says. "You should make sure to receive the tetanus booster every 10 years.

There is now a tetanus diphtheria vaccine combined with a pertussis booster available. Polio is another booster that you need to stay on top of. All travelers should look at the CDC's Web site for traveler's health information in regards to their particular destination."

For an overview of the CDC's recommendations for travel vaccinations, visit http://wwwn.cdc.gov/travel/contentVaccinations.aspx.

Dr. Trinh says the best way to make sure that you and your family remain up-to-date on vaccinations - and therefore protected from many preventable diseases - is to make an appointment for an annual exam and discuss your vaccination history with your physician.

To find a local family practice doctor, visit Washington Hospital Healthcare System's Web site at www.whhs.com and click on "Find a Physician."

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