As your children get ready to head back to school, you’re probably checking their immunization records and scheduling booster shots. However, you might be surprised to know that vaccination is designed to be a lifelong activity that can protect you and your loved ones from preventable diseases. This August, celebrate National Immunization Awareness Month by catching up with your own vaccination schedule.
Measles, Pertussis, and Chickenpox: Why Herd Immunity Matters
In recent years, California has experienced dangerous outbreaks of both measles and pertussis (whooping cough). Both of these diseases are highly contagious but are preventable with immunizations. However, not everyone can safely get an immunization due to age, a suppressed immune system, or allergies. These vulnerable people must rely on herd immunity.
When enough community members become immune to a disease, it’s less likely to spread — even to at-risk people. This concept is commonly referred to as “herd immunity.” Every disease has its own herd immunity threshold, depending on how easily it spreads. Measles, for example, is highly contagious and requires a 95% immunization rate for herd immunity.
In 2014, Californians were shocked to hear that a measles outbreak occurred at Disneyland. Over a period of a few months, 159 people caught measles at the theme park — more than the average number of Americans who contract measles in an entire year. While researchers believe a foreign tourist brought measles to Disneyland, a dip in immunization rates damaged our herd immunity and let it thrive.
Similarly, the number of pertussis cases has skyrocketed in recent years. In 2010, the number of whooping cough cases in California hit a 60-year high with 9,000 diagnoses and 10 infant deaths. In 2014, there were 11,209 pertussis diagnoses, hundreds of hospitalizations, and two infant deaths. Public health officials speculate that 2018 numbers will be even worse.
Now, let’s consider chickenpox. Before the 1990s, when the chickenpox vaccine became commonplace, roughly 150 people died from the disease each year. Most of the fatalities involved infants and very young children. After the chickenpox vaccine was introduced, the number of chickenpox deaths dropped by 97%. Remarkably, between 2004 and 2007, there wasn’t a single reported infant fatality from chickenpox, because they were kept safe by herd immunity.
In response to its decreasing herd immunity, California passed new laws eliminating personal belief exceptions to vaccination and setting stricter requirements for admission of non-vaccinated children to schools. In the 2014-2015 school year, the last year personal belief exceptions were allowed, about 90% of California kindergartners were fully vaccinated. By the 2017-2018 academic year, seven out of eight counties within our service area exceeded this number:
- Alameda: 97.5%
- Contra Costa: 96.3%
- Marin: 94%
- San Mateo: 96.9%
- Santa Clara: 96.7%
- San Francisco: 94.9%
- Sonoma: 91.8%
While there’s still room for improvement, we’re thrilled that more and more children are getting immunized and that herd immunity is growing again.
Adults Need Vaccines Too
Did you know most adults are missing out on life-saving vaccinations? Some vaccines, like influenza, must be received annually. Others, like pertussis and tetanus, fade over time and require boosters. Unfortunately, as we age, our chances of suffering serious complications from infectious diseases increases.
Consider these numbers:
- 56,000 Americans die each year from the flu. Only 43% of adults get their flu shot.
- Pneumococcal pneumonia causes 400,000 hospitalizations annually. Only 24% of people who are at risk get the vaccine.
And when you get vaccinated, you’re protecting your loved ones and neighbors who can’t get immunizations. For example, only 27% of adults get the pertussis booster. Children are not fully protected by the DTaP (pertussis) vaccine until they get their fifth dose. However, when a pregnant mother gets a pertussis booster in their third trimester, she can pass some antibodies to her baby.
If you’re unsure which vaccinations you need, consult with your primary care physician. There are different adult vaccination schedules depending on your specific risk factors, including your age, occupation, lifestyle, chronic medical conditions, and vaccination history. If you need help finding a primary care physician, you can search Canopy Health’s physician directory.
Vaccines Are a Low-Cost and Safe Way to Protect Your Family
To be clear — vaccines do not cause autism and are safe for most people. Only a very small number of people are medically unable to get vaccines. If you’re concerned about your ability to tolerate a specific vaccine, discuss your worries with your primary care doctor. However, don’t let fear and misinformation put you at risk of contracting a preventable disease.
Most vaccines are also affordable and available at your local pharmacy. Under the Affordable Care Act, many common vaccines are an essential health benefit. This means you should never pay out-of-pocket for the influenza, measles, shingles, or pertussis vaccines.
California Department of Public Health. (2018, June 20). Pertussis (Whooping cough). California Department of Public Health. Retrieved from https://www.cdph.ca.gov/Programs/CID/DCDC/Pages/Immunization/pertussis.aspx
California Department of Public Health, Immunization Branch. (2018). 2017-2018 kindergarten immunization assessment: Executive summary. California Department of Public Health. Retrieved from https://www.cdph.ca.gov/Programs/CID/DCDC/CDPH%20Document%20Library/Immunization/2017-2018KindergartenSummaryReport.pdf
National Public Health Information Coalition. (2018). National Immunization Awareness Month Toolkit. NPHIC.
Willingham, E., Helft, L. (2014, September 5). What is herd immunity? NOVA. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/body/herd-immunity.html