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A history of vaccines and why you need them

Shots. Just the sound of the word might bring up memories of dreaded doctor visits from your childhood. But the truth is that vaccines are a crucial part of primary care to keep you well. Here’s everything you need to know about vaccines.

How do vaccines work?

The best way to look at how vaccines work is to view them as the attempt to mimic a natural immune response that would occur in real life—but better. Vaccines work against bacterial and viral outbreaks and save millions of lives globally, but the importance of getting vaccinated has been clouded by continuous practices since the 18th century.

“The flu shot? I’m healthy. I don’t need it!” or, “Measles? I couldn’t ever contract that!” are common misconceptions from our neighbors and friends.

Vaccines provide preventive measures as to why friends and families are able to live their lives without fear of catching a deadly disease, but how about in cases where ignorance is not bliss? In a time when smallpox was sweeping through England and decimating populations of villages, Edward Jenner, the father of immunology, pioneered the smallpox vaccine. When cowpox (a disease similar to smallpox, but much less severe) was contracted by his milkmaids, Jenner soon realized that they were immune to the contagious smallpox virus.

After many successful trials, it was found that his hypothesis stood: The pus in the blisters that milkmaids developed from cowpox protected them from smallpox.

Smallpox, which is caused by the variola virus, is a global pathogen. But thanks to the smallpox vaccine—which is 99.999 percent effective—the World Health Organization (WHO) declared smallpox as an eradicated disease in 1980, nearly 150 years after its first discovery. (The eradication of viral infection actually caused ethical struggles among scientists because it meant a life form—the smallpox virus—would become extinct.)

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It’s important to think about vaccinations in a worldly perspective. Getting a vaccine not only impacts your health, but the health of those around you. Each individual who gets vaccinated puts the importance of the health of the population as a priority.

Related: Why getting the flu shot isn’t all about you

How vaccines keep you healthy

When it comes to staying well, vaccines are critical. Getting vaccinated helps protect you and your loved ones from illnesses like the flu, measles and COVID-19. However, it’s normal to have questions.

There has been a pervasive mistrust of vaccines that has, in part, propagated because the general public has never known the horrors of diseases like polio that their grandparents once lived with. We now get vaccinated for a multitude of diseases at such a young age that we forget the importance of follow-up shots.

Worried about an allergy? You may assume that you have an allergy to the flu shot from previous experiences; but in reality, there are so many new strains of the flu vaccine that an allergy to the flu shot is irrelevant. If you are still concerned, talk to your doctor.

For children and teens, staying up to date on vaccines is a significant part of wellness exams. What is interesting about children is that they have continuously changing immune systems. Because they continue to grow, their immunizations have to keep up with them. This is where the importance of booster shots comes into play.

Understanding the measles vaccine

Measles is highly contagious and is spread by respiratory droplets and airborne pathogens. The incubation period for this febrile rash illness is about two weeks. Patients are contagious from four days before the onset of the rash to four days after the appearance of the rash.

In children, the first MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine dose is administered at 12 to 15 months and the second at 4 to 6 years.

Because measles remains endemic in much of the world, the MMR vaccine is also recommended for children as young as 6 months of age when they are traveling abroad, as well as:

  • Children older than 12 months of age who are traveling internationally should receive two doses of MMR, separated by at least 28 days.
  • Infants vaccinated before age 12 months should be revaccinated after their first birthday with one dose, followed by a second dose at least 28 days later.

Maintaining high two-dose community coverage with MMR vaccination remains the most effective way to prevent outbreaks. All college students, international travelers and healthcare personnel should receive two doses of MMR vaccine, unless they have other evidence of measles immunity. Unlike smallpox, the MMR vaccine has no set reservoirs, which makes it tricky to guarantee lifelong immunity.

Check out the CDC’s measles vaccination guidelines for more information.

The problem with vaccines, in general, is that our immunity is good, but it’s not perfect. Therefore, it’s always a good idea to get vaccinated to give yourself the best chance possible at staying healthy.

Find a primary care doctor to help you stay well.

About the author

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Dr Spak is an expert in infectious diseases with additional training in epidemiology and public health. He is active in clinical research trials and also lectures to the medical students and physicians-in-training.

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A history of vaccines and why you need them