When you get an infection, your body reacts by producing substances called antibodies. These antibodies fight the disease and help you get over the illness. The antibodies usually stay in your system and help protect you from getting the same disease again. This process is called immunity.
Although newborn babies are immune to many diseases (because they have their mother's antibodies), that immunity wears off during the first year of life. To assure continuous protection against diseases, we need to vaccinate (immunize) children and adults.
First, the germs that cause the disease (killed or weakened viruses, bacterial molecules, or inactivated toxins) are made into vaccines. Then these vaccines are given either orally (drops) or intramuscularly (by injection). These vaccines fool the body into thinking it is under attack by the disease and the body reacts by producing antibodies. Consequently, when the person is exposed to the actual disease, they are protected.
Some 50,000 to 70,000 people die of influenza, pneumonia and hepatitis B in the U.S. every year. About half those deaths could be prevented by vaccination. But among the very people who are most at risk (older adults and high-risk adult groups), 60 percent do not get an annual flu shot, 80 percent are not immunized against pneumonia and 90 percent have not received the hepatitis B vaccine.
Older people should be routinely immunized, since immunity declines with age. According to the Mayo Clinic Health Letter (October 1994) pneumonia and influenza are the fifth (5th) leading causes of death in people age 65 and older.
Adults should be vaccinated against the following nine diseases:
Pneumonia: This is an inflammation of the lungs, due to infection, that results in chest pain, chills, cough, high fever and difficulty in breathing. Immunization is recommended only once.
Influenza: The flu is a viral infection that can cause chills, fatigue, fever, weakness, severe muscle aches and a hacking cough. Immunization is recommended annually.
Measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR): Measles is a viral infection that causes fever, rash, cough, runny nose and watery eyes. It also can cause ear infections and pneumonia, as well as serious problems such as brain swelling and even death.
Mumps is a viral infection that causes fever, headache and painful swelling of one or both of the major salivary glands. It also can lead to meningitis, brain swelling and swollen testicles.
Rubella, also called German measles, is a viral infection that causes a slight fever, a rash and swelling of the glands in the neck. Immunization is recommended once. Pregnant women should not be vaccinated, and women should be advised not to become pregnant during the three (3) months following vaccination.
Hepatitis A: This is a type of hepatitis (inflammation of the liver) caused by a viral infection. Hepatitis A is thought to be spread by virus from an infected person's feces directly or indirectly contaminating food, drinking water or someone else's hands. Immunization is recommended once.
Hepatitis B: A type of hepatitis (inflammation of the liver) caused by a viral infection. Hepatitis B is mainly transmitted sexually, or spread by mechanisms in which an infected person's blood is inoculated into someone else. Immunization is recommended once.
Tetanus/Diphtheria: Tetanus occurs when soil-dwelling bacteria get into a puncture wound and produce a toxin that attacks the nervous system.
Diphtheria occurs when the bacterium involved in this disease releases a toxin that can damage the membranes of the nose and throat and, in severe cases, the heart muscle. Immunization is recommended every 10 years.
Note: Chickenpox vaccine is recommended for anyone age 13 and older who has not had chickenpox.
- Know your family's immunization status. If their medical records are incomplete, a blood test can usually determine immunity.
- Maintain a comprehensive list of the family's immunizations.
- Remember: staying fully vaccinated can help prevent serious, even fatal, illness - especially among young children, older people and those who have weakened immunity.
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