Immunizations and global health responsibility

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The U.S. prides itself on being advanced in the field of medicine and health. We have eradicated many diseases that once caused mass destruction. Diphtheria, bacterial influenza, measles, mumps, rubella, and tetanus are among the illnesses that we no longer worry about due to vaccinations.

A disease eliminated worldwide is considered eradicated. To date, only smallpox has been eradicated. In 1980, after decades of effort by the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Health Assembly endorsed a statement declaring smallpox eradicated. Coordinated efforts rid the world of a disease that had once killed up to 35 percent of its victims and left others scarred or blind. Immunization saved lives throughout the world.

The successful elimination of smallpox was possible because it relied on human beings to host it, cultivate it, and pass it on. Today, many common illnesses such as the influenza viruses that affect humans often stay viable because animals host them. Yellow fever can infect humans as well as monkeys. If a mosquito capable of spreading yellow fever bites an infected monkey, the mosquito can then transmit the disease to humans. Even if the entire human population of the planet were vaccinated, it would not eradicate the disease because monkeys remain carriers and mosquitos are almost impossible to eliminate. The hypothesis is that the human influenza viruses were initially acquired with the domestication of animals. Viruses identical or closely related to the human form of the infection can be isolated from ducks, turkeys, swine, horses and many other warm-blooded vertebrates. 

Despite educational efforts, the Farmington Valley Health District states that less than half of the adults in the Valley get a flu shot each year. The National Center for Health Statistics reports a growing trend for school-age children not being vaccinated due to exemptions. While laws vary from state to state, once-mandatory vaccinations to attend public schools are being exempted for religious or personal reasons. 

Another reason people refuse to vaccinate is the fear that vaccines cause autism. Research does not support the claim that vaccinations of any kind can cause or lead to autism. The mercury preservative thimerosal used in vaccines was thought to be the cause. It is not currently used in most vaccine production. The study that began the autism fear was discredited, and the research doctor lost his license to practice. Despite this, many still use autism as a reason not to vaccinate.

Epidemic fears are real. In light of that concern, some states are taking over the decision of who may request exemption from immunizations. Many states are currently considering legislation to eliminate the exemption clauses to prevent a potential pandemic situation.

The measles outbreaks this year are among the worst in decades. The CDC reported multiple outbreaks, including clusters in New York, Washington State, Texas, Illinois, and California. Many who got sick lived in communities where there were groups of unvaccinated people. Pneumonia and death are realities for many weakened by the measles, especially in already compromised individuals. 

Despite the hospitalization of hundreds of thousands of people with the flu, and the tens of thousands who will die, influenza vaccination rates in the U.S. are less than 50 percent. Herd immunity results when the majority of people are immunized. When fewer are immunized, exposure creates a risk to those truly unable to be vaccinated: the very young, those allergic to the vaccine, and those immune-compromised by chemotherapy or other diseases. 

Please consider the safety of your health and those who may have health or age reasons not to be vaccinated. It should be the responsibility of each of us to assist in the process. Protecting our own health matters as does protecting those we encounter at work, school and in other public places. Make an informed decision based on facts and reality by educating yourself with the multitude of resources available on the Internet. 

The Farmington Valley VNA can help answer your questions. Call us today at 860-651-3539. It is never too late to be vaccinated. 

By Nancy A. Scheetz, APRN, B.C., Executive Director, Farmington Valley Visiting Nurse Association.