The Essential Vaccines Every Woman Needs
Immunizing patients against vaccine-preventable diseases is one of the best tools doctors have in their health and wellness kits. Knowing that people die from vaccine-preventable diseases make you appreciate what you are doing as a physician when you vaccinate a patient. I’ve witnessed deaths from cervical cancer, anal cancer, oral cancer and pneumonia, chronic pain from the shingles disease and the devastation of meningitis, all of which could have been prevented by immunization.
But let’s understand adult vaccines. They don’t protect us from every episode of every disease. In childhood, when we vaccinate babies for polio, for example, they never get the disease. We eliminate it. In adult vaccines, our immune system responds differently. We may still get the disease but a much less virulent case.
Realistically, you may still get the flu after a flu shot, but you are not likely to be very ill, get admitted to the ICU or die on a respirator from overwhelming influenza. What we can accomplish with vaccines is significantly reducing the severity of the disease in question. We have attenuated the disease, not eliminated it. Is that good enough? While we would like to prevent every case, reducing its severity, eliminating hospitalization and changing a major illness into a minor one is pretty powerful stuff!
Tetanus, Diphtheria and Pertussis
Why do you need a pertussis vaccine as an adult? To prevent whooping cough for you and the babies around you. Babies are not fully protected until after their fourth shot, at about 18 months. There have been outbreaks of pertussis in the US that have resulted in the deaths of otherwise-healthy babies.
Half of us will get a case of shingles if we live until we are 80 years old – that’s one in two Canadians. Do we care if we get a rash? No, we don’t care so much. But do we care if we get significant nerve pain for the next two to five years – or longer? Yes. That pain can be debilitating, even life-ending, as the drugs used to control the pain come with risks, too.
This is an important option for protecting yourself. It decreases your risk of cervical cancer, anal cancer and oral cancer and prevents recurrence of cervical cancer that you may have had years ago. There is no upper age limit for protection, so talk to your doctor about your options.
Pneumonia and Flu Vaccine
Together, pneumonia and flu are the sixth leading cause of death in Canada. Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that needlessly affects millions of people worldwide each year. A vaccination is the best way to prevent the disease or lower your risk – vaccination also reduces the risk of contracting pneumonia in the population at large. The latest information on the pneumonia vaccine is that it also decreases your risk of other diseases, such as heart attack.
Dr. Vivien Brown is a family physician and president of the Federation of Medical Women of Canada, drvivienbrown.com.