by Amanda K and Sara C
Yesterday, we wrote about the physiology of vaccines. Today, we want to address how vaccines work as a public health measure; in other words, keeping us all healthy as a community, country, and world population.
Some folks argue that all you need to protect yourself against the flu is to protect your own immune system. Don’t get us wrong, we’re all for taking preventive measures by fortifying your own immune system. We eat (a lot of) vegetables. We exercise, do our best to sleep enough, and drink lots of water. Amanda even takes vitamin C tablets sometimes during cold season (although Sara thinks you should just maintain your daily value – the rest just gets flushed right down the toilet). But at the end of the day, if we do all that, and we don’t get a flu vaccine, and we don’t get the flu…it’s not necessarily because of our healthy immune systems. It might be, sure. But it also might be because a large segment of the population did get a flu vaccine.
The fact is, the more people that get immunized, the fewer hosts there are available for a virus. This results in a smaller overall virus load in the population, which results in a reduced chance of you – of anyone – getting sick. That is the power behind the “do it for the herd” slogan. This is true of all viruses and vaccines: controlling the disease is a group effort. This is why we find it just the teeniest bit ironic that some vaccine opponents seem to have, in our minds anyway, a ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude, gloating about not getting their influenza vaccines and not getting the flu. Whether these individuals realize it or not, they DO benefit from vaccines too: the vaccines that the rest of us got. They can thank us later.
Of course, an influenza vaccine is in no way foolproof. Influenza is a highly variable, highly mutable virus. There will always be strains that are not covered by the vaccine, so some people who get a flu shot will still get the flu. That said, vaccination is, statistically speaking, preventive for many/the majority of cases and certainly a far cry better than not having a vaccine for any of the strains. Just one more tool in the toolbox of controlling disease.
What’s more, we have evidence that these tools are working. For years, many childhood diseases were out of sight, out of mind. However, ever since there has been public dissent about vaccinations and parents choosing not to vaccinate their children, conditions like pertussis (whooping cough), measles, and rubella have starting cropping up among both children and adults. Like the flu, pertussis and measles can kill you. Rubella will cause significant birth defects in 1 in 4 pregnancies when rubella is contracted by the mother in the first trimester. There are many pediatricians who will not allow a child into their practice if they are not vaccinated, because of the risk of spreading these serious diseases to their other, potentially more vulnerable patients.
Here’s another consideration – there are people out there who cannot or should not get certain vaccines, such as immuno-compromised people or very new babies. By getting vaccinated yourself, even as a healthy individual, you are not only helping to prevent yourself from getting sick, you are helping those at-risk people to not get sick by preventing the spread of the virus. As we discussed yesterday, there are plenty of selfish reasons to get immunized, but there are unselfish reasons too. And in certain situations, we cannot help but think that it seems more selfish to not get a vaccine than to get one.
In the midst of these sorts of arguments, we cannot help but recall just how fortunate we are to be able to have them in the first place. We live in a country where we have the privilege of bickering over whether or not we should be bothered to take 30 minutes to go to the free clinic and get an influenza vaccine that may prevent us from missing a week of work in the middle of winter, when there are children in other countries dying because their mothers don’t have the same luxury of debating the question, “to vaccinate or not to vaccinate?” NOT vaccinating is their only option. And the result is disease, debilitation, and death. For instance, did you know that in some parts of the world there are children dying every day from measles? Measles! An infectious disease that we give scarcely a thought to in our own country, because vaccines have all but eliminated it here. Hundreds of thousands of children have died – and continue to die – every year from measles in Africa and other developing parts of the world because they cannot get access to an 89-cent vaccine. Did you catch that? Let’s summarize: Children. Death. Preventable. 89 cents. So, who would like to volunteer to go tell the mother who has already lost one child and is watching another die from a debilitating and entirely preventable disease that she shouldn’t be using vaccines, because “here in the West, where vaccines have already wiped out the disease that is killing your children, well, we are beginning to have second thoughts about using them…”? Volunteers? No?
So, we’ve gotten our flu shots this year. If you haven’t yet, you still have the option. Lucky us. Lucky you.
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