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Vaccines Are Everyone’s Business: 2019 International Infection Prevention Week

October 15, 2019

The first vaccine developed to help prevent disease was for smallpox, a disease that had been around for thousands of years. In 1796, Edward Jenner, an English physician and scientist, discovered that milkmaids who contracted the disease cowpox did not get smallpox if they were exposed. Smallpox was a serious illness that left many with scars or blindness, and killed about 3 out of every 10 who contracted the disease. The vaccine was refined and different types were developed over the years. In 1967, there was a push by the World Health Organization (WHO) to eliminate the disease worldwide. The organization declared smallpox eradicated in 1980.

Other vaccines followed. Among them were vaccines for pertussis (whooping cough) in 1914, diphtheria in 1926, and tetanus in 1938. These are now given together as the DTP vaccine. The next big vaccine was against polio, which became available in 1955. Polio affected thousands of people in the United States, mostly children, leaving many disabled or dead. The vaccine allowed polio to be wiped out in the country, with the last known U.S. case recorded in 1979. However, polio is still found in some parts of the world. According to the WHO, there were 22 cases reported in 2017. And as long as there are active cases in the world, there is the potential that it will spread.

Other diseases weren’t quite as scary as smallpox and polio, and are often referred to as childhood diseases: measles, German measles (rubella), chicken pox, and mumps. But before vaccines for these diseases were readily available, these diseases killed many children or left them with lasting complications. For example, the WHO estimates that each year, about 2.6 million people world-wide died from measles before the vaccine became available. In 2017, 110,000 people died from measles.

Vaccines have also been developed for other illnesses, such as influenza (flu) and pneumonia. The seasonal flu vaccine changes every year, while the pneumonia vaccine protects against some strains of the disease. October and November are when authorities push hard for the flu vaccine in North America, when the seasonal flu period begins. These vaccines are important in helping reduce sepsis deaths, because – as with all infections – pneumonia and the flu can trigger sepsis in anyone, from the very young to the very old, chronically ill or healthy.

Despite the success vaccines have in improving health around the world, there is fear among scientists, healthcare professionals and others that these diseases will make a comeback and cause more deaths and disability. Many people are now choosing not to vaccinate their children, exposing them to the possibility of infection and of spreading the infection to people who cannot be immunized, such as those with an impaired immune system. Vaccinations don’t just protect people who are vaccinated, they protect those who can’t be through herd immunity. Having vaccinated people around unvaccinated people reduces their risk of exposure to the viruses. But for herd immunity to be effective, 83% to 94% of people need to be vaccinated. Ironically, the people making the choice not to vaccinate their children were likely vaccinated themselves, which prevented them from falling ill to these contagious diseases.

Vaccines save lives. By reducing the risk of contracting an infectious disease, we reduce the risk of sepsis. Vaccines are not infallible though. Sometimes people who get a vaccine for a particular illness, like the flu, still get it. Perhaps they were exposed to the virus before the vaccine, or perhaps the vaccine wasn’t as effective for that individual. And, like all medications, vaccines do have some possible side effects. The most common ones include redness or soreness at the injection site, headache, fatigue, or a low-grade fever. In some rare cases, there can be a serious adverse reaction, like seizures or an allergic reaction. However, vaccines go through years of testing before the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows them to be used in the U.S., and they are continuously monitored after. The U.S. government has implemented several monitoring systems to track vaccine safety. The Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS) is an early warning system, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and FDA. Anyone, including members of the public, can file a report with VAERS.

The Vaccine Safety Datalink (VSD) also tracks vaccine safety. The Post-Licensure Rapid Immunization Safety Monitoring System (PRISM) is part of the FDA, which identifies possible safety issues; and the Clinical Immunization Safety Assessment Project (CISA) has the CDC and national vaccine safety experts working together to evaluate reports of vaccine side effects in specific patients.

This year’s theme for 2019 International Infection Prevention Week, running from October 13 to 19, is Vaccines Are Everyone’s Business. Speak with your healthcare provider about your vaccination needs. Prevent the spread of infection and reduce the risk of anyone getting sepsis.