Every August, National Immunization Awareness Month (NIAM) draws attention to the importance of immunizing adults and children. A wide range of events and activities are held, focusing on increasing public knowledge about immunization.

This year NIAM activities are being coordinated by the National Public Health Information Coalition, which has created a useful toolkit with key messages, media materials, social media messages, Web links, and resources. August is an ideal time to make sure everyone is up to date on vaccines before heading back to school, and can plan ahead to receive a flu vaccine. Each week of the month has a different focus. First, preteens and teens, then pregnant women, then adults, and finally infants and children.

Vaccination is crucial at several different life stages. Young children need protection from many infectious diseases by the age of 2 years and further vaccinations before starting school. As children get older, they are at a higher risk of certain diseases including meningitis, septicemia (blood infection), and infections that can lead to human papillomavirus cancers. Getting these vaccines not only helps protect the preteens and teens themselves, but also their siblings, friends, and caregivers.

College students should check whether they are up to date with immunizations before moving into shared living accommodations, and adults of all ages may need boosters. Those working in certain areas such as health care may need further protection, as well as those going on vacation abroad.

Pregnant women can protect their newborns from some infectious diseases by getting vaccinated. Women should be up to date on their vaccines before becoming pregnant and should receive vaccines against both the flu and whooping cough (pertussis) during pregnancy. Vaccines received during pregnancy will also provide the baby with some immunity for his or her first few months of life.

Older adults and individuals with long-term conditions may benefit from vaccines such as shingles, pneumococcal disease, hepatitis B or human papilloma virus, depending on age, occupation, travel, health status, vaccination history, and other risk factors.

Immunization

All adults should get the flu vaccine each year to protect against seasonal flu, and every adult should also get the Tdap vaccine if they did not receive it as an adolescent. This protects against pertussis, tetanus, and diphtheria. Currently, too few adults are receiving the recommended vaccines, putting themselves and their loved ones at risk of serious infections.

A series of articles has been written by senior pediatricians on the state of pediatric medicine before immunizations became available​. They are published on the consumer site of the American Academy of Pediatrics, healthychildren.org.

In one of these articles, William R. Purcell, MD, of Laurinburg, NC, remembers treating measles and diphtheria in Charleston, South Carolina. Over his 36 years as a practicing paediatrician, Purcell says he "…often worked with patients suffering with diseases that have since been widely prevented by immunizations". For example, during his internship in 1956, there were patients who needed iron lungs due to paralysis from polio.

"In the early days of my pediatric training and practice and prior to newer vaccines, I personally helped care for seven children who unfortunately died from complications occurring with measles," he writes. "There was no treatment for measles and its complications, as is true today, so all that we could do was provide symptomatic and supportive care.

"In addition, during my pediatric training in Charleston, S.C. we often saw severely ill young children with diphtheria or whooping cough who often came from islands near Charleston and unfortunately had never received immunizations. Almost every year there were epidemics of measles, mumps, and chickenpox and often there were some cases of pneumonia, encephalitis, or other complications."

Purcell adds, "It is wonderful that younger pediatricians rarely see these problems anymore because of immunizations. Immunizations are one of the greatest public health achievements in the history of medicine. Every single child deserves the protection of all the recommended childhood immunizations."

The American Academy of Pediatrics points out that vaccines are thoroughly tested before licensing and carefully monitored to ensure they are safe. Individuals can get vaccines at private doctors' offices, and other convenient locations such as pharmacies, workplaces, community health clinics, and health departments. Side effects are usually mild and temporary.

References:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention information on National Immunization Awareness Month
http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/events/niam.html

Pediatrician Remembers Measles & Diphtheria in Charleston
https://www.healthychildren.org/English/safety-prevention/immunizations/Pages/Pediatrician-Remembers-Measles-Diphtheria-in-Charleston.aspx

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