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Vaccines among health department’s top tools

  • Published Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013, at 11:32 a.m.

The Sedgwick County Health Department is responsible for improving the health of the residents of Sedgwick County by promoting wellness, preventing disease and protecting the public from health threats. One of our most important responsibilities is the control of communicable diseases, and our most powerful tool is vaccinations.

Vaccines have been used effectively in health practices for decades and perhaps with more limited success for centuries. From the documented creation of the vaccine for smallpox in 1796 to polio in 1952 and the human papillomavirus in 2006, more than 30 vaccines are readily available today. When vaccines are administered correctly, they are the most powerful tools in the arsenal against the spread of disease. But are vaccinations so common today that we sometimes fail to take advantage of this prevention strategy or even develop a false sense of security?

To understand the importance of vaccinations, it’s helpful to understand how they work. A vaccine is used to help the immune system resist disease. It boosts the immune response without the risk of illness or death that can come with infection. This immune response helps the body fight off future infection from the disease.

When most of the population is immunized, people who don’t receive the vaccination and those who cannot receive it because of age or medical conditions are still protected. This is known as “herd immunity” and refers to protection due to decreased disease transmission among the largely immunized group. So, when overall immunization rates fall, the risk of outbreaks of preventable illnesses increases.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, vaccinations are one of the 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century. Vaccines have reduced or eliminated many diseases that once widely killed or seriously harmed infants, children and adults. Because of the success of vaccines, many of us have not seen firsthand the effects of these illnesses; but many of them still exist. Infants are one group particularly at risk of infection and complications. One of my colleagues recently shared this harrowing story:

When our oldest son was only 5 weeks old and too young to receive most vaccinations, he contracted pertussis, or whooping cough. At first, he appeared to have a cold with no significant symptoms other than a cough, but due to his young age, his doctor wanted to examine him. After a short observation, he was diagnosed with pneumonia and admitted to the local hospital. Throughout the night, his cough worsened and by morning he was not able to recover from each fit. His tiny body turned purple and the nurse had to resuscitate him. Within hours he was airborne to a metropolitan hospital’s ICU.

“When we arrived at the hospital, we learned he had pertussis. He spent the next week and a half in isolation in the ICU. ... He repeatedly required suctioning of his nose and throat just to breathe. I was also diagnosed with pertussis, and as an adult, the endless, hacking cough was painful and my ribs were bruised. I can’t imagine the pain my son endured.

“Once he was well enough to leave the ICU, he spent several additional days recovering. The pertussis damaged his lungs and decreased his immunity, which left him susceptible to additional respiratory illnesses that resulted in two more hospitalizations within his first year. But I know pertussis is known to cause death in infants, so I consider us lucky.”

For the past 13 months, the nation, including Sedgwick County, has experienced an uptick in pertussis, a vaccine-preventable disease. In 2012, there were about 41,000 cases and 18 deaths in the United States, about 860 cases in Kansas, and about 98 in Sedgwick County.

Why is this happening?

According to the CDC, reported cases of pertussis tend to peak every three to five years. The last peak year was in 2010 when more than 27,000 cases were reported nationwide.

Unvaccinated people are susceptible to disease and decrease the herd immunity. In Sedgwick County, the percentage of 2-year-old children up to date on vaccinations is 52 percent compared with 57 percent in Kansas and 73 percent nationwide. The goal is 80 percent.

Protection from the vaccine decreases over time so revaccination with the Tdap booster is important.

Although pertussis and other vaccine preventable diseases occur, the impact of vaccinations in decreasing the number of people who become ill is dramatic. Every age group benefits from vaccines, either directly or by “herd immunity.” It is important to stay on schedule to assure maximum protection. Complete vaccination schedules for infants, children, adults and seniors are available at www.sedgwickcounty.org or www.cdc.org.

Visit the Sedgwick County Health Department vaccination clinic at 2716 W. Central; appointments are not required during normal business hours: Monday through Wednesday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday noon to 6:30 p.m., Friday 8 to 11:30 a.m. A sliding fee scale applies and most insurance is accepted.

Claudia Blackburn is director of the Sedgwick County Health Department.

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