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Merced County public health officer: Vaccinations save lives. Get your shots today

Dana Brantley, a nurse with the Merced County Department of Public Health, prepares to give a Tdap vaccination to a student at Stowell Elementary.
Dana Brantley, a nurse with the Merced County Department of Public Health, prepares to give a Tdap vaccination to a student at Stowell Elementary. Merced City School District

The horrible toll of human suffering and death taken by epidemics of infectious diseases such as smallpox and diphtheria have been recognized and accurately described for centuries, even millennia. Only in relatively recent history has the ability to protect populations against transmission of certain infectious diseases been possible. The scientific breakthrough that allows this achievement is termed “vaccination.”

The history of vaccination is remarkable. The concept of vaccination and development of vaccines to protect against human diseases is considered one of the greatest success stories in modern public health.

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Dr. Ken Bird, interim public health officer for Merced County.

Vaccination utilizes the body’s natural immune system to mount a protective response to organisms foreign to the body that would otherwise reproduce rampantly and cause illness.

Vaccines use killed or weakened organisms, or even portions of organisms, to mimic natural exposure to the organism, but limit the possibility of illness. The body will manufacture “antibodies.” These antibodies will assist the body with destruction of the invading organism if the body is later exposed to it. The vaccine generates immunity to that disease. This immunity may last for a lifetime or may wane over the course of months or years, requiring additional vaccination or “boosters.”

The success of vaccination is apparent and has been documented widely.

Many diseases such as polio and diphtheria, which previously caused large numbers of deaths nationally and globally, are now rarely seen because of vaccination.

Smallpox is a painful, disfiguring, and often fatal disease which affected 10 million to 15 million people and caused 2 million deaths worldwide every year prior to 1967. To eliminate the disease, a global vaccination campaign was initiated that year and the last natural case of smallpox in the world was recorded on October 22, 1977.

Polio is another severe and often fatal disease that left 13,000 to 20,000 people paralyzed and caused 1,000 deaths in the United States annually prior to national vaccination efforts begun in the 1950s. The last case of polio acquired in the U.S. was in 1979.

Measles is a vaccine-preventable disease which is in the news currently. In the decade before 1963, when a vaccine became available, nearly all children got measles by the time they were 15 years of age. It is estimated 3 million to 4 million people in the United States were infected each year. Also, each year an estimated 400 to 500 people died, 40,000 were hospitalized, and 4,000 suffered encephalitis (swelling of the brain) from measles.

In 2000, measles was declared eliminated in the US. Elimination, in this instance, is defined as “no continuous disease transmission for greater than 12 months.” Measles cases continue to occur in this country from exposure to individuals from other countries where measles vaccination rates are low

Secondary cases of measles from these international exposures are becoming more common as measles vaccination rates drop here in this country.

As I am writing this, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that there have been 235 cases of measles in New York, 66 in Washington, and eight in Texas in recent months.

This is a result of declining vaccination rates.

Vaccination protects you and your loved ones from serious illness. However, the benefits of vaccination do not stop there. With enough of us in the community vaccinated from illness, those unable to receive vaccination due to age or medical problems are also protected by the reduction in possible exposures.

There are very few reasons to not vaccinate against infectious illnesses for which vaccines have been made available. Influenza vaccine does not cause influenza. Measles vaccine does not cause autism.

Act now to take one of the easiest and surest steps to assure your own health and the health of those you love. You will also help to assure the health of our community. Talk to your health care provider about vaccination (no matter what your age). Be sure you are fully vaccinated.

If you or your family cannot access a health care provider for vaccination, please contact us at the Merced County Department of Public Health at 209-381-1200.

Dr. Ken Bird is the interim public health officer for Merced County.
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