Germs are responsible for more illnesses annually than we could possibly count. Fortunately, our bodies are sometimes able to ward off some of their attacks before they can cause serious illness.
The immune system may be the most incredible system in the human body. Like a bodyguard, it constantly patrols our bodies, protecting us from germs we come in contact with on a daily basis.
But sometimes germs are too powerful for the immune system to handle, at least initially. By the time the immune system takes control of these powerful germs, we have already suffered the consequences of an attack, which may include fever, chills or body aches. Sometimes the consequences are far more dangerous. Fortunately, we have access to a secret weapon that offers protection from some powerful germs: immunizations.
Since their discovery in the late 1700s, immunizations have successfully prevented much human suffering. Just a hundred years ago, losing a child — or several children — to illness was almost commonplace, something that today is nearly unimaginable. Immunizations have protected the lives of millions of children. Truly, immunizations are not only a weapon against some of the most infamous germs. They have become an indispensable part of our counter-offensive against infectious diseases. Rather than trying to care for a child who has already been infected, we can use a simple injection to prevent an illness.
As time has passed, immunizations have become even more successful at protecting both kids and adults from potentially deadly and highly infectious diseases. Some of these diseases are still with us today, including pertussis, meningitis and influenza.
Pertussis is a highly contagious bacterial infection spread easily through coughing and sneezing. The infection causes thick, sticky mucus that can narrow — or even block — the airway. As an infected child struggles to breathe, violent, uncontrollable coughing spasms take over. At the end of a coughing spasm, the child’s desperate gasp for air sounds like a whoop, hence the name whooping cough.
While whooping cough can cause mild-to-moderate illness in older children, adolescents and adults, the disease is often deadly to infants, whose tiny airways can’t supply enough air through the thick mucus, and they may suffocate.
Unfortunately, pertussis is very common around the world, and within the U.S. Every year, many states suffer pertussis outbreaks. In recent years, some states have reported so many cases that they have had to declare a pertussis epidemic. The U.S. had nearly 30,000 reported cases of pertussis in 2010, although the infection rate is likely much higher, because adults with milder cases may not seek medical care.
Infected, undiagnosed adults pose an additional threat. They can infect anyone they come into casual contact with — at the grocery store, at a movie theater, in a restaurant — including young children, who have yet to be immunized.
Thankfully, protection against pertussis is available for your child as part of the DTaP immunization series, usually starting at two months of age and ending at four to six years. Continued protection is needed with a booster at around 11 to 12 years, just as a child transitions to middle school or junior high. The pertussis booster, known as the Tdap immunization, may be required in some states for entry into sixth or seventh grade. The Tdap vaccine should be substituted for a single dose of Td in the catch-up series for kids aged seven through ten years.
The U.S. has about 1,500 cases of meningitis each year. While the disease can often be treated with antibiotics when caught early, it’s still fatal for 10 to 15 percent of those who get it. Of those who survive the infection, many often suffer from horrific, permanent consequences, such as brain damage, kidney disease, hearing loss or even the amputation of a limb.
Meningitis is spread in a similar way to pertussis — through coughing and sneezing — although it can also be spread by sharing eating utensils or drinking glasses and by kissing. Infants younger than 1 and adolescents over 16 are most susceptible to the disease.
While meningitis infections can be caused by a virus, they’re usually from one of six bacteria strains. The good news is that we have an immunization that protects against four of these strains. Even more exciting is the fact that those four strains are responsible for almost all of the meningitis infections in the U.S. Protection against meningitis is available in a two-dose immunization series, with the first immunization given at 11 to 12, and a booster at age 16.
Because those living in a dorm environment are at an even higher risk of contracting meningitis, it is important to follow the recommended immunization schedule for it. Be sure your adolescents are fully protected against the bacteria by the time they are at the greatest risk.
Usually spread through coughs and sneezes, flu infections are caused by the influenza virus. The flu is so contagious that it can be caught easily by simply talking near an infected person or by touching what he has touched — a doorknob, a pen, a phone, etc. The spread of influenza can occur before symptoms become apparent. Peak flu season is January through March, although cases first appear in October.
Because the flu virus changes — or mutates — frequently, the immunization for the flu must also change, so an individual needs to be immunized each year for full protection. No one has yet created a flu shot that protects against all strains, but flu experts carefully track the flu virus worldwide, then predict which strains are most likely to appear in the U.S. during flu season. The prominent strains are included in our flu shots every year.
There are two different flu immunizations: inactivated and live-attenuated. Inactivated flu immunizations are injected, usually in a muscle such as the upper arm.
The live-attenuated flu immunization is given as a spray through the nose. While this type may be less traumatic for a small child, it can only be administered to children over age two. It also can be given to only some children, so be sure to contact your health care provider to find out if your child is eligible.
Annual flu immunizations should begin when your baby is six months old. Kids under age nine getting immunized for the very first time will need two doses — with the second dose a month after the first. From that point into adulthood, only one flu immunization is needed each year, even if you happen to skip a few years in between.
As one of the greatest discoveries of all time, immunizations continue to protect us and our kids from devastating, sometimes deadly diseases, but sometimes tracking all of the different types of immunizations your child needs is tricky.
To avoid confusion, and to ensure the timeliest protection against contagious diseases, contact your health care provider for advice. While the majority of immunizations are administered before your child reaches age five, the best way to protect your children at any age — and yourself, for that matter — is to take advantage of our immunization weapon against diseases.
Karlen E. Luthy, DNP, FNP, a primary care nurse practitioner, is an Assistant Professor at Brigham Young University in Provo, UT.