While Media Focuses on Ebola, Campaign Focuses on Vaccines That Prevent Common Diseases

Andrew Kitchenman | August 6, 2014 | Health Care
Month-long campaign urges up-to-date immunizations for both children and adults

syringe and vial
The West African outbreak of the Ebola virus has been garnering TV headlines, but efforts to reduce the threat posed by more common communicable diseases are more likely to benefit New Jerseyans, according to health experts.

While immunizations are more commonly associated with childhood, it’s important that adults be immunized as well, an annual campaign is emphasizing.

State Department of Health officials are promoting immunizations among all age groups as part of National Immunization Awareness Month. While public-health experts urge parents to make sure their children are up-to-date on immunizations ahead of the school year, they also see it as a good time for adults to update their shots.

It is important for adults to check to see whether they received the vaccine for tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis – also known the Tdap – in adolescence, according to health experts. If not, they should get this shot as an adult, as well as booster shots for tetanus and diphtheria every 10 years.

Immunization is particularly important for those older than 60 and those who have a chronic condition like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes or heart disease, according to the National Public Health Information Coalition.

State Deputy Health Commissioner Dr. Arturo Brito said in a statement that healthcare providers must play a key role in this effort. State officials noted that women should receive the Tdap vaccine every time they are pregnant, to protect their children from pertussis, or whooping cough.

“Immunization is also important for anyone who is in close contact with infants, seniors, people with weakened immune systems and those who cannot be vaccinated,” said Brito, adding that healthcare professionals should routinely assess their patients and strongly recommend needed vaccinations — as well as making sure have all recommended vaccines themselves.

State officials encouraged healthcare providers to use the web-based “tool kit” that federal health officials have prepared.

Public-health advocates are increasingly emphasizing that immunizations are important throughout a person’s lifespan, according to Dr. Peter N. Wenger, the pediatric infectious diseases attending physician at Saint Peter’s University Hospital in New Brunswick and a clinical associate professor in the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School Department of Preventive Medicine & Community Health.

The campaign is devoting each week of this month to a separate age group. This week the focus is on babies from birth to age 2, when various shots are given. Next week will highlight back-to-school vaccines for children aged 4 through 12. From August 17 to August 23, the focus will be on adolescents, and adults will be targeted in the last week of the month.

Wenger said vaccinations at each stage of life can save lives. For example, between the ages of 10 and 26, the human papillomavirus vaccine can prevent cervical cancer. And all ages benefit from flu shots ahead of the winter-spring flu season.

New Jersey has made progress in recent years, with the childhood immunization rate for Tdap rising rising above the national average after several years below the average.

But it’s important to continue to improve these rates, Wenger said.

“Immunizations are essentially a victim of their own success,” since public awareness of their benefits declined as many infectious diseases were reduced or eliminated, Wenger said. “To parents now, measles is as exotic as smallpox was to my parents.”

Opponents of immunization have focused on the potential risks from vaccines and emphasize the importance of giving parents a choice in deciding whether they want their children to be immunized.

But Wenger said having a month each year that is dedicated to immunizations increases public understanding of their benefits. “It’s programs like this that the state is doing that keeps it in the public mind, and stresses the importance of immunizations,” he said.

Dr. Drew Harris, chairman of the New Jersey Public Health Institute, noted that booster shots benefit both adults and the people they come into contact with.

“While most adults are strong enough to survive the flu and other vaccine-preventable disease, it’s no picnic,” Harris said. “Why go through that misery when a shot could prevent it?”

He added that children who are too young to receive some vaccines or those whose immune systems are weakened by disease are protected when everyone they come into contact with is immunized.

“The best protection for them is to keep vaccine-preventable disease from reaching them,” Harris said, noting that the practice is called “cocooning.”
“If I had a newborn child or a very sick family member,” Harris concluded, “I would make certain that everyone — young and old — who came in contact with them was up-to-date on all the important vaccines.”

There is no vaccine for Ebola, but Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials have said the possibility of a passenger with the virus travelling to the United States is remote and that procedures are in place to protect against the disease spreading. The only two cases of Ebola in this country were of two American aid workers who were recent brought back from Africa for treatment.