After reading "Prevention: Strong Investments in Colorado's Health," the supplement to the 2011 Colorado Health Report Card, I was reminded that vaccines are amazingly cost-effective. The supplement noted that for every $1 dollar invested in vaccinations $16 dollars in direct and indirect societal costs are saved. Although the cost savings are impressive, I feel compelled to emphasize another important point: Vaccines save lives.
As a mother, immunologist and educator, here's why I think vaccines are important:
As a mother of 7 year-old twins, I feel the need to protect my children in every way possible.
As an immunologist I know the best way to do so; strictly adhere to the guidelines for immunization set forth by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
As an educator, I perceive the recent outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases (e.g. measles and whooping cough) as a call to increase community education. We need to expand, as well as diversify, the current methods in place used to educate the general public.
The Internet has introduced a challenging element to health care during the past several years. Many people turn to their computer instead of a health care professional. I strongly believe there needs to be a greater emphasis about the safety and efficacy (as well as scientifically accurate information regarding the rare occurrence of severe side effects) of vaccines among health care professionals. Only then, can we counter the misconceptions and scientific inaccuracies available on the Internet.
If implemented correctly, community education has the potential to address and alleviate the "fear of the unknown" many parents have about vaccinations. To do so, the greater health care community may need to begin funding community vaccine education programs that would relieve the burden of lengthy vaccine discussions from the physicians who are pressed for time during brief well-check appointments. These programs also may serve to further inform physician extenders (i.e. nurses, physician assistants, and medical assistants) and patients of non-traditional health care professionals (i.e. chiropractors), many of whom have little education related to vaccines within their formal training. As a result, many simply aren't prepared to answer vaccine-related questions.
Face-to-face forums are needed to open a dialogue between the community and vaccine educators and allow for any and all questions surrounding vaccines to be answered, resulting in informed decisions based on scientifically accurate information. At the same time these forums would also emphasize an important medical fact that may not be clear to many people – healthy vaccinated individuals protect those among us who are immunocompromised and can't get vaccinated (e.g. cancer or transplant patients). People who are immunocompromised rely upon the community for protection – also known as "herd immunity." But for herd immunity to work, a critical number of people need to be vaccinated to ensure outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases do not occur.
Ironically, vaccines are a victim of their own success. In this day and age in the United States, we rarely see the diseases that vaccines prevent, which may actually be part of the problem – the general public hasn't seen horrific diseases (such as polio and smallpox) in quite some time because vaccines work. Educational efforts should be aimed at reminding the community about the success of previous vaccine efforts and the real threats of a partially vaccinated population to ourselves and the vulnerable portions within our population.
Ultimately, an open exchange between the medical community and the general public would reveal the same common goal – to keep all children and adults healthy.
To learn more about the public health benefits of vaccines, visit the Colorado Children's Immunization Coalition's Immunize for Good website.