Measles, plague, smallpox, polio, diphtheria, cholera - these are some diseases that you run across when you read history books. Why? In the history of humankind, these diseases have maimed or killed many people - kings and peasants, leaders and followers, adults, elderly and infants. Would our lives be different now if President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not have polio, if plague did not rampage through Europe, if measles had not killed a prince of Wales?
Some diseases kill. Some diseases leave you deaf, blind, crippled, or scarred. When disease strikes, the most vulnerable are the ones who are very young, very old or already ill. Such diseases can be transmitted in a variety of ways: by direct contact, indirectly through an animal or insect, by contamination of objects (like toys, water, foods), or through the air. Most diseases are caused by microscopic organisms and we can be exposed to them without knowing it.
Without a doubt, the most effective public health measure is sanitation. Once people learned to wash their hands, dispose of their waste properly and use clean water, deaths due to diseases decreased remarkably. Visit any developing or war-torn country where people live in poverty or unsanitary conditions and see what a difference sanitation makes.
But there is more we can do: To decrease risk of infection, we can purify water, cook food well, and control insects. We can avoid direct contact or wash our hands. Airborne diseases are more difficult to control because we have to breathe to stay alive. We could all wear masks all the time, but that would be impractical and uncomfortable.
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Enter vaccines. Vaccines were developed in the last century to protect humans from diseases. Natural infection leads to natural immunity. In many instances, however, the natural infection causes death or disability that is permanent. Vaccines introduce small amounts of non-infectious disease particles, enough to have our immune system recognize them but not enough to cause disease. This “revs up” our immune system so that when we encounter the real disease, the disease is prevented or becomes milder.
Are there side effects to vaccination? Yes, but serious side effects occur rarely. Unfortunately, we cannot always identify ahead of time the 1 in 1,000 or 1 in 10 million who will get these side effects. In most cases, the risk from side effects to the vaccine is a lot less than the risk of having injury or death caused by the disease itself.
Are all vaccines necessary? It is almost impossible to protect against diseases that are airborne, except with vaccines or by living in a bubble. Some vaccines are more useful in special settings or in particular communities where the risk of disease is higher.
Vaccination is one tool to protect you and your family. Risks and benefits of vaccination need to be weighed against risk and benefits of acquiring disease. Please take the time to review the information about vaccines and discuss your options with your health care provider.
For vaccine and vaccine safety information, go to www.cdc.gov/vaccines.
Dr. Diana T. Yu is the Health Officer for Thurston, and Mason counties. She can be reached at 360-867-2501 or firstname.lastname@example.org.