There always seems to be some confusion and misunderstanding around vaccines. Should you get them? Should you not? What vaccines should you give to your children? However, vaccines are crucial to protecting your family and the health of the public. Vaccines are created and administered to prevent the spread of contagious, dangerous, and sometimes deadly diseases. Some examples include measles, polio, mumps, chicken pox, whooping cough, and HPV.
The first vaccine discovered was the smallpox vaccine. Smallpox was an illness that killed 300 to 500 million people around the world in the last century. Once a vaccine was created and administered, the disease eventually disappeared, making it the only disease to be completely destroyed.1
What are vaccines?
A vaccine, or an immunization, is a way to build up your body’s immunity to a disease before you get sick, helping you to avoid getting and spreading the disease. Most vaccines are a weakened form of the disease germ that is then administered to you usually as a shot in the arm or leg. The antibodies that are created stay in your body for a very long time or the rest of your life. This means if you are ever exposed to that disease, your body can fight it off without you ever getting sick.
How does immunity work?
Your immune system is there to help fight off any foreign germs that could make you sick or harm you. To build up your immune system and make it strong, your body must be exposed to different germs. When it is exposed to those germs for the first time, your body will produce antibodies to fight against it. However, sometimes that means you will get sick if your body has not formed those antibodies quite yet. Once those antibodies have been produced, they will stay in your body so that the next time you are exposed, they will fight against the germs and you will not get sick. It is important to note that you CANNOT get the disease from the vaccine. This is a common misconception around vaccines, especially the influenzas vaccine. However, it does take a few weeks for the body to produce the antibodies, so it is possible for a person to become infected just before or after receiving a vaccination.
Who should get vaccines?
Everyone! Vaccines are recommended for infants, children, teens, and adults, and there are different vaccine schedules that are available. A great place to find these schedules is by visiting cdc.gov. These schedules typically include what vaccines should be given and at what age. Most vaccines are given to children, and it is recommended that they receive 14 different vaccines by the time they have their sixth birthday.1 Here are some facts provided by the CDC about the importance of childhood vaccines:
· Newborn babies are immune to many diseases because they have antibodies they got from their mothers. However, this immunity goes away during the first year of life.
· If an unvaccinated child is exposed to a disease germ, the child’s body may not be strong enough to fight the disease. Before vaccines, many children died from diseases that vaccines now prevent, such as whooping cough, measles, and polio. Those same germs exist today, but because babies are protected by vaccines, we do not see these diseases nearly as often.
· Immunizing individual children also helps to protect the health of our community, especially those people who cannot be immunized (children who are too young to be vaccinated or those who can’t receive certain vaccines for medical reasons) and the small proportion of people who don’t respond to a particular vaccine.
· Vaccine-preventable diseases have a costly economic impact as well, resulting in increased doctor’s visits, hospitalizations, and premature deaths. Sick children can also cause parents to lose time from work.
As you get older, you need fewer vaccines. Also, some vaccines that are given during childhood wear off over time. Here are the two vaccines needed as an adult:
· Influenza (flu) vaccine each year. The flu vaccine is particularly important for people who have chronic health conditions, are pregnant, or over age 65.
· Tdap or Td vaccine. The Tdap vaccine protects against whooping cough and tetanus. It is recommended that adults get this vaccine every 10 years. Also, each time a woman is pregnant, it is recommended to get the Tdap vaccine around 27 to 36 weeks.2
Other vaccines may be needed or recommended depending on your age, health condition, job, lifestyle, or travel habits. A couple of these vaccines are:
· Shingles vaccine (Shingrix) for healthy adults 50 years and older. This is recommended to prevent shingles and the complications from the disease.
· Pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine is recommended for all adults who are 65 years or older and for adults younger than 65 who have certain health conditions. This vaccine will help protect against serious pneumococcal disease, including meningitis and bloodstream infections.
To check what other vaccines may be recommended for your specific situation, you can visit the CDC.
Why are vaccines important?
In the United States, vaccines have greatly reduced or eliminated many infectious diseases that once routinely harmed or killed infants, children, and adults. However, the viruses and bacteria that cause these diseases still exist, and there is a possibility of getting sick if you are not vaccinated. Every year, thousands of adults become sick, are hospitalized, or even die from diseases that vaccines could have helped prevent.2
Because vaccines can help lower your chance of getting certain diseases, you are also less likely to develop severe complications as a result of getting sick. Some examples provided by the CDC include:
· The Hepatitis B vaccine lowers your risk of liver cancer.
· The HPV vaccine lowers your risk of cervical cancer.
· The flu vaccine lowers your risk of flu-related heart attacks or other flu-related complications from existing health conditions like diabetes and chronic lung disease.
Vaccines also lower your chance of spreading the disease to those around you. Some people are not able to get certain vaccines due to their age or health conditions. Therefore, it is as important as ever that you help prevent the spread of disease since they cannot. Also, infants, older adults, or those who have a weakened immune system (like individuals undergoing cancer treatment) are also at risk of getting certain diseases. For example, newborn babies are too young to be treated for whooping cough. This disease can be very dangerous and sometimes deadly for them. That is why the CDC recommends pregnant women to get the Tdap vaccine each time they are pregnant. It is also recommended that anyone else who is around newborns should be up to date on that Tdap vaccine as well.
Overall, it is your choice to get vaccinated or not. But before making that decision, keep in mind all that was mentioned above. Vaccines are there to help you and those around you stay healthy. Getting the recommended vaccines is the best possible protection available against a number of serious diseases.2
What about the COVID-19 vaccine?
These days, the only vaccine on most people’s mind is the COVID-19 vaccine. What is available? How does it work? Why should I get it? When can I get it? Many of the answers to these questions depend on what state you are in, which phase you fall into, and where we are that day in the vaccine development and distribution process, but we will try to answer the basic questions here. As always, if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out to our pharmacy team – we are always happy to go over any medical and health concerns that you may have.
What COVID-19 vaccines are available? How do they work?
As of March 1, there are now three vaccines authorized for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States, manufactured by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson/Janssen. The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are made using messenger RNA, or mRNA. Coronaviruses, including COVID-19, have S proteins that form a spike on the surface of the cell. The COVID-19 vaccines using mRNA provide the body with information on how to make its own harmless S proteins; as your cells begin to make this protein, your immune system learns that the new protein shouldn’t be there, and it will begin to create an immune response by making antibodies.³
The Johnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccine was just granted Emergency Use Authorization by the FDA over the past weekend. More information on how it's made and how it works will be coming via the CDC in the coming days and weeks.
Many other vaccines are in various stages of trials. No vaccine is approved for use without the FDA reviewing the results of these clinical trials to confirm that the data indicates that the vaccine is safe and effective.
The two vaccines already being distributed are highly effective — the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has an efficacy rate of 95% and the Moderna vaccine’s rate is 94.1%. What does this mean in layman’s terms? The vaccine protects 95% of people who receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine (or 94.1% of people for the Moderna vaccine) from developing symptoms from contracting COVID-19.³
Research is still being done on how effective these vaccines are against the variants. Early research has had positive indications that they will offer some protection. Manufacturers are also researching for the potential for “booster shots” to increase protection against current and new variants.
Why should I get the vaccine?
Like with other vaccines, the goal of the COVID-19 vaccines is to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus. This takes a community effort – and in the case of a pandemic like this, it takes global effort – and the best protection against any virus is to take advantage of the vaccine available.
First and foremost, the COVID-19 vaccine will help protect you from getting COVID-19; If you still get infected once you are vaccinated, the vaccine may help prevent the more serious symptoms and illness.
The COVID-19 vaccine may also protect those around you by preventing you from spreading it. This is especially important for those with weakened immune systems and those living with certain health conditions who could face much more serious consequences if they contract the virus.
When more people in a community are vaccinated, it makes it harder for the virus to find a body to infect. This helps build herd immunity, where the vaccinated many help shield the vulnerable few. This also helps cut down the virus’s ability to mutate. Vaccination is a much safer method to build protection in your body and in the community as there is no way to know how the virus will affect a person – you could have little to know symptoms, or you could face serious and life-threatening complications.4
When can I get the vaccine?
In Pennsylvania, we are currently in Phase 1A per the Department of Public Health's guidelines (click here to view phases). It is important to know which phase you fall under to know when you will be eligible to receive your vaccine.
Both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are a two-dose series. Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine is authorized for people 16 and older and is administered via injection 21 days (three weeks) apart. Moderna’s vaccine is authorized to be given to people 18 and older, and it is administered 28 days (four weeks) apart. If needed, the second dose of both vaccines can be delayed up to six weeks after the first dose.3
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a single dose, administered via injection, and is authorized for people 18 and older.