Thursday, October 13, 2016

Not Just Your Health, But Everyone's - The Importance of Vaccination

When we were 7 or 8 years old, our cousins gave me and my brother a "special" gift. I've still got a couple of scars to remember it by actually.  You see, they gave us chickenpox. Itchy, painful, feverish, misery. We were both lucky to go into it young and healthy, so we came out with nothing worse than a few pockmarks each as souvenirs, and our parents had had it as kids, so they weren't infected again. It could have been much more dangerous.

There was no chickenpox (varicella) vaccine when I was a child, but Boo is luckier.  He received the vaccination as part of his regular schedule, when he was about 15 months old. He did great, and had no ill effects. But he did still get a mild case of the chickenpox in kindergarten. According to the Ontario Government, childhood hospitalizations for chickenpox in our province have decreased by 59%, because of this vaccine. When Boo was exposed to the virus at school, he did develop a cluster of 6-8 pox on his right shoulder, but they didn't itch, and he had no fever. He actually felt fine, and got some time off school in quarantine so he wouldn't spread it around. He didn't have to suffer as I did. I was so grateful!

While chickenpox is rarely fatal, it can lead to death in severe cases, particularly in adults or infants, and can result in serious secondary infections, pneumonia, and even stroke (Public Health Agency of Canada) And it is extremely contagious, even before symptoms appear. There are many other vaccine preventable diseases with serious potential consequences. Because of this, I consider vaccination to be an important part of my family's healthcare. It just makes sense to me to take these preventative measures.

But it's more than that. Keeping the boys up-to-date on their vaccines not only protects them from catching preventable diseases, it protects the whole community. Immunocompromised people, the elderly and infants are all more susceptible to disease and more likely to suffer very serious symptoms should they become ill. As well, there are those who, for medical reasons, are unable to be immunized. The more individuals in a community who are vaccinated, the lower the chance of a disease outbreak, and the safer it is for everyone. This is known as "community immunity" or "herd immunity," and it is a major factor in the virtual eradication of communicable diseases like polio or measles in Canada. If people begin "opting out" of vaccination for their children, they are putting everyone at risk for the return of these serious illnesses.

This is of course a hot topic, and events like last year's measles outbreak at Disneyland get both sides of the immunization debate talking. Talking and sharing alternate viewpoints is generally a good thing, but we have to be careful about disseminating false or misleading information.  If you are unsure about the safety or necessity of vaccination, here are a few reliable sources for you to check out.

Your Doctor. The first, and most obvious thing to do is to speak to your family doctor or paediatrician. They are well-trained, they know you and your family, and they can speak to your specific situation. Ask them questions and discuss any concerns you might have. They can offer advice on pain management for the needles, explain any possible side effects and how to treat those, and provide a plan for administering the necessary doses for full protection. If you are an Ontario resident, this site will tell you all you need to know about how and when to get vaccinated. You can access Ontario's Routine Vaccination Schedule, outlining the recommendations from infancy through adulthood. These routine vaccinations are offered at no charge, normally through your family doctor or public health unit.

Your Local Public Health Unit. In Ontario, you can find your local unit online here. They can provide information on the routine vaccination schedule, and provide clinics to help you and your family keep up-to-date on your shots. Ontario's Immunization of School Pupils Act outlines the immunization requirements for students in elementary and secondary schools. In order to attend school in Ontario, children must be immunized against tetanus, diphtheria, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, meningococcal disease and whooping cough (unless they have a valid exemption), and parents are responsible for updating the local public health unit with their child's immunization status. Local public health units can provide the necessary exemption form if parents choose not to immunize their child.

Public Health Agency of Canada. The PHAC's Vaccine Safety page is a great resource to educate yourself about the research, safeguards, and regulations in place in Canada to ensure the safety and efficacy of the vaccines we use. These matters are taken very seriously.

Canadian Paediatric Society. I appreciate that the CPS's Caring for Kids site is geared specifically to parents, with information provided by practising paediatricians. There is a wealth of information on vaccines, their possible side effects, and the symptoms and possible outcomes of the diseases they prevent. The CPS also publishes a guide for parents, Your Child's Best Shot, in case you are ready for a comprehensive read. It is available for purchase, or check your local library.

In all things, I believe it is important to educate ourselves before making big decisions. These resources will help you make the best, most informed decisions for your family.

Disclosure: This post was developed in association with the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. The opinions are my own.

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