Vaccinations: Progress, but more work needed

A vaccination in progress. (Photo: Komsan Loonprom)

Last year, Gov. Brown signed into law a bill that eliminated the personal belief exemption from mandatory school vaccines. The law has been on the books for just three months now, and already we have seen an uptick in student vaccination rates. The immunization rate for incoming kindergarten students has jumped this year by more than 2 percentage points—to approximately 93 percent.

This is news we should all be proud of.

But anyone who cares about the health of our state and the welfare of our communities should not rest on the success of SB 277 – there is still more work to be done. We still have to ensure every child who should be vaccinated is vaccinated. And, we have to make sure that teenagers and adults are up-to-date with their vaccines because there have been outbreaks of illnesses that can be prevented, if we take the right steps.

Earlier in the year, we saw several cases of meningitis B on the campus of Santa Clara University. And, over the summer, there was a meningitis outbreak among members of Los Angeles’ gay community, causing over a dozen people to become ill. These episodes are stark reminders that getting vaccines is not just something we should just do when we are younger. Ensuring we have updated vaccines has to be a life-long healthcare priority.

Many people may not know that even if we received a vaccine when we were younger, we may not be inoculated as an adult. Some vaccines can lose their effectiveness as time goes by, which is why it is important to speak with our doctors to make sure our vaccines are up to date.

Ensuring our vaccines have not worn off is important because when it comes to illnesses like meningitis, pneumococcal disease, shingles, and whooping cough, the consequences of contracting them can be devastating.

The bacterial form of meningitis is particularly dangerous—it carries with it a fatality rate of between 10 and 15 percent. Even if an individual survives the disease, there can be life-long effects—19 percent of survivors suffer permanent complications that can be as serious as brain damage.

Other illnesses can also be devastating.

Among adults, seniors and the chronically ill, pneumococcal is the single-largest communicable disease of concern. It is estimated that about 900,000 Americans get pneumococcal pneumonia each year.

Some adults are at a higher risk for contracting pneumococcal disease based on pre-existing conditions like emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and asthma, or lifestyle habits, like smoking.

In California, only 70 percent of adults have had the pneumonia vaccine, according to 2014 data, which should make us take pause because approximately 95 percent of pneumococcal deaths in the country are adults.

As we age, we should not assume that because we received a vaccine when we were younger, we are automatically protected. When families make appointments for their children to go to the pediatrician to be vaccinated, they should make sure to also carve time for themselves to speak to their own physician.

We are lucky to have access to life-saving, preventative medicine. We just need to make sure we use it.

Ed’s Note: Dr. Robert Bitonte is a physiatrist based in Los Angeles and is the former president of the California Society of Physical Medicine and  Rehabilitation. 

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