August is National Immunization Awareness Month (NIAM). The importance of vaccination has been debated back and forth over the last decade, with some parents deciding to forgo vaccinating their children. For some, it is concerns about side effects; others think since many of these diseases appear to be eradicated, why bother? Well, the reason we see less and less of these communicable diseases is because of vaccination.
Diseases are becoming rare due to vaccinations
Some diseases (like polio and diphtheria) have become very rare in the U.S., largely because we have been vaccinating against them. However, this isn’t true everywhere in the world.
Only one disease—smallpox—has been totally erased from the planet. Polio no longer occurs in the U.S., but it is still paralyzing children in several African countries. More than 350,000 cases of measles were reported from around the world in 2011, with outbreaks in the Pacific, Asia, Africa and Europe. In that same year, 90% of measles cases in the U.S. were associated with cases imported from another country. Only the fact that most Americans are vaccinated prevented these clusters of cases from becoming epidemics.
Immunize until disease is eliminated
Even if there are only a few cases of disease today, if we take away the protection given by vaccination, diseases that are almost unknown would stage a comeback. Before long we would see epidemics of diseases that are nearly under control today and we will undo the progress we have made over the years.
How do vaccines work?
Vaccines contain the same antigens (or parts of antigens) that cause diseases. For example, a measles vaccine contains measles virus. But the antigens in vaccines are either killed, or weakened to the point that they don’t cause disease.
Vaccines help develop immunity by imitating an infection, but this “imitation” infection does not cause illness. It does, however, cause the immune system to develop the same response as it does to a real infection so the body can recognize and fight the vaccine-preventable disease in the future.
In other words, a vaccine is a safer substitute for a child’s first exposure to a disease. The child gets protection without having to get sick. Through vaccination, children can develop immunity without suffering from the actual diseases that vaccines prevent.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention