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Vaccines have made more of an impact on public health than any other strategy except safe drinking water, according to the National Partnership for Immunization (NPI) in Bethesda, MD. Yet vaccine-preventable diseases still occur in the United States.
According to NPI, pneumococcal disease causes approximately 17,000 cases of invasive disease among children younger than 5 years old, resulting in 700 cases of meningitis and 200 deaths each year. However, failure to keep children’s immunization schedules up to date not only impacts their health in childhood, it often puts them at risk in adulthood as well. The risk of complications and death from chickenpox is 10-20 times greater for adults than children. Because chickenpox is endemic in the United States, anyone who is not vaccinated is at increased risk for contracting the disease in adulthood.
For these reasons and many others, NPI has designated August as National Immunization Awareness Month. They encourage health care organizations to schedule community outreach events to educate the public about the benefits of immunization during this month. There are several areas for education that fit this year’s theme, which is "Are You Up to Date? Vaccinate!"
One area that needs to be covered is the need to keep adolescent immunization records up to date, says David A. Neumann, PhD, director of the National Partnership for Immunizations. Many Americans think that vaccines are for infants and children, but recommended vaccinations begin soon after birth and should continue throughout life.
For example, the last time most adults had a tetanus shot they were on their way to summer camp, yet this vaccine should be given every 10 years. In addition, many adolescents and adults could be at risk for hepatitis A and B and would benefit from these vaccinations.
Some adolescents need to be vaccinated for meningitis. Last year, there was an outbreak of meningitis among college students with several deaths, yet many people don’t know it is a vaccine-preventable disease. There is an increased incidence of meningitis among students living in dormitories, particularly among first-year students, says Neumann.
Myths about vaccines are another area that needs to be addressed. There are a substantial number of parents in this country who believe that their children are not at risk for such diseases as measles and chickenpox because they rarely are seen in the United States, says Neumann.
Last year, the Atlanta-based Center for Disease Control and Prevention did its annual nationwide telephone survey to provide estimates of the proportion of children that have received each of the recommended vaccines and found that the numbers had dropped a bit, he says. While it is not enough of a drop to be a public health threat it does reveal that health care organizations need to be vigilant.
When a child is born, he or she has temporary immunity to many common childhood diseases because disease-fighting antibodies were passed through the placenta from the mother to the child. However, the immunity quickly wears off. Therefore, by age 2, children need 16-20 doses of vaccines for full protection against 11 diseases.
Another myth that prevents parents from vaccinating their children is that the disease can be contracted from the vaccination. According to NPI, this is the greatest fear among parents. However, when the vaccine is made from dead bacteria or viruses or just part of the bacteria or viruses it is impossible for a child to contract the disease.
Immunizations made from weakened live viruses can cause a mild form of the disease, but it is always much less severe than if the child had been exposed to the actual disease-causing virus, according to NPI. Immunizations made from weakened live viruses include measles, mumps, rubella, and chickenpox.
A third area educational coordinators can target is the pockets of underimmunized children that exist in their area. Providing access to vaccinations in neighborhoods where there is poor health care coverage is one way to increase coverage.
In general, regular physician visits for small children improve vaccination rates.
For more information about immunizations or National Immunization Awareness Month, contact:
• David A. Neumann, PhD, Director, National Partnership for Immunization, 4733 Bethesda Ave., Bethesda, MD 20814. Telephone: (301) 656-0003. Web site: www.partnersforimmunization.org.