National Immunization Awareness Month is promoted each August in an effort to increase awareness of immunization at a time when parents and children are getting ready to return to school and the medical community begins preparations for the upcoming flu season.
Immunization is one of the most important aspects of preventive medicine for people of all ages. Even with the availability of safe and effective vaccines, thousands of cases of infectious diseases occur in the United States annually — diseases that could be prevented if we all stayed current with our immunizations.
Recent outbreaks of measles have shown that many of these diseases are just a plane ride away because many countries do not have the immunization policies or availability of vaccine that the United States does.
Before vaccines, parents in the United States could expect that every year the following would happen:
• Polio would paralyze 10,000 children.
• Rubella (German measles) would cause birth defects and mental retardation in as many as 20,000 newborns.
• Measles would infect about 4,000,000 children, killing 3,000.
• Diphtheria would be one of the most common causes of death in school-aged children.
• A bacterium called haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) would cause meningitis in 15,000 children, leaving many with permanent brain damage.
• Pertussis (whooping cough) would kill thousands of infants.
The disappearance of many childhood diseases in the United States has caused some parents to question whether vaccines are still necessary. Parents who are concerned that vaccines actually may cause diseases, such as autism, have delayed vaccines or withheld them altogether from their children. These beliefs put the rest of our population at risk, affecting children who currently are in the middle of immunizations that require several shots and adults who were not vaccinated against diseases because those vaccines were not available when they were children.
Most vaccines are given during the first five to six years of life because children are particularly vulnerable to infection. State laws require that children be immunized against a set number of diseases by the time they first enter school.
Immunization records of all children entering school are reviewed each fall, and states conduct studies to validate reports showing the number and percentage of immunized children in schools. These studies are put in place to ensure high vaccination levels of children enrolled in schools.
While not a requirement, Prevnar is a new vaccine developed to provide immunity against certain strains of the pneumococcal germ. This germ is the most common cause of ear infections (about 30 percent) and research has found that using this vaccine may reduce the amount of ear infections in children. There clearly is a reduction in the amount of meningitis, and that is the main reason for this vaccine. While it may help some forms of ear infections, it does not protect from all forms. If this interests you, call your health provider to see if it has this vaccine.
The HPV vaccine — available for all adolescent girls — protects against strains of human papilloma virus that are responsible for causing 70 percent of all cervical cancers found in women.
Every year, about 12,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer, and almost 4,000 women die from this disease in the United States. Males also can get immunized against the HP virus.
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted virus in the United States, and it is estimated that as many as 75 percent of the reproductive-age population has been infected with one or more types of genital HPV and up to 5.5 million new infections occur each year. Even girls who practice abstinence should get vaccinated because there is no way to be sure of a future spouse’s exposure to HPV.
If your child will be entering a college or university in the Georgia school system, a listing of required immunizations can be found at www.usg.edu/student_affairs/faq/immun/immun-reqs.pdf.
Every year, more than 40,000 American adults die from vaccine-preventable diseases or their complications — with pneumonia and influenza together being the fifth leading cause of death among adults.
In addition to these vaccines and special travel vaccines, adults should check with their health professionals to see if they need immunization for Hepatitis A or B or diseases such as tetanus, diptheria and pertussis. Booster immunization are recommended for certain vaccines throughout life, and some studies indicate that pertussis is responsible for as much as 25 percent of all severe cough illnesses among adults.
Adults older than 60 might want to consider the new Zostavax vaccine to protect against shingles. Approximately half of all adults who live to be 85 years old will have one or more encounters with the herpes zoster virus. A painful skin rash often with blisters, shingles is caused by the chickenpox virus and usually lasts two to four weeks. A single dose is recommended for adults 60 years or older whether or not they have had a prior episode of shingles.
New Georgia residents may be interested in the following:
• Individual immunization records are not kept on file by the Georgia Immunization Program, so if you need a copy of your immunization record, contact the health-care provider who administered your last immunizations and request a copy of your record from them. You also can try contacting the last school you attended to see if it still has your immunization certificate on file. If you had your immunizations administered in a public health clinic in Georgia, contact the health department in the county where the clinic is located.
• Blank immunization certificates (Form 3231) may be obtained only at health departments and physicians licensed in Georgia, so you will need to take your child’s personal immunization record to a health department or Georgia physician. They can complete the form and give any required vaccines.
Immunization Form 3231 is required the first time the child enters school in Georgia, regardless of age. Once the form has been designated as “complete for school,” additional forms are not needed if the child receives a booster shot.
If the form has been marked with a “date of expiration” because a person is in the process of completing the required immunizations, then he or she will need to submit a new form to the school after each shot, until the person finally is designated “complete for school.”
• Keeping copies of personal immunization records for all family members is very important because records can be lost, misfiled or the doctor could retire and records then might become unavailable.
For more information about immunizations, go to the Coastal Health District website, www.gachd.org.
Ratcliffe is a consultant to the Coastal Health District. You can call her at 876-6399.