Immunizations provide the ounce of prevention delivering the pound of cure
Air Force Col. Tonya Rans, chief, Immunization Healthcare Branch, Defense Health Agency.
While a medical student years ago, I recall an infant who was brought in with serious flu symptoms. He was pale and looked exhausted lying in his mother’s arms. He made a high-pitched whistling sound while struggling to breathe. I distinctly remember seeing the outline of his collarbone and ribs while he gasped for air and tiredly looked my way. The medical team immediately assisted him with a breathing tube, started fluids and medication through an IV. He was transferred to the intensive care unit, where I saw his medical team sit just outside of his room overnight so they would be available immediately if the infant needed help. He was diagnosed with a vaccine-preventable disease, although this time, he was too young to be immunized. But it still really drove home in the mind of this doctor the important role vaccines play in preventing so many diseases, including the seasonal flu. During August’s Preventive Health Month, let’s talk about our best preventive health measure we can take: immunizations.
Vaccines are among the most important accomplishments in medicine. They’ve saved more lives throughout the world than any other medical invention, including antibiotics or surgery. The mobile, worldwide nature of the military, and the potential exposure service members have to diseases not common to the general civilian population in the United States, make clear the importance of vaccinations. Vaccines keep you and your team healthy, and healthy troops complete their missions. Getting immunized also keeps you from bringing back diseases to your loved ones. For family members and retirees, keeping up with vaccinations ensures the health of the entire community, especially the elderly and those on treatments that suppress their own immune systems.
For immunizations to be most effective in protecting the entire community, we must rely on something called “herd immunity.” This limits the spread of disease by having a large percentage of the community immunized. Between 80 and 95 percent of the community must be vaccinated for herd immunity to be helpful.
However, not everyone takes advantage of the benefit vaccinations bring, lowering the percentage of those vaccinated, and thus, lowering the overall herd immunity. This has led to several large outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases abroad and in the U.S. My office, the Defense Health Agency Immunization Healthcare Branch, pilots programs to help providers engage with vaccine-hesitant parents and help them make the best-informed decisions.
Additionally, to make sure all DoD beneficiaries have a way to ask about any immunization-related concern, we developed four Regional Vaccine Safety Hubs composed of doctors, nurses, and immunization health care specialists. Clinical staff from these safety hubs are available 24/7 to answer your questions through our Immunization Healthcare Support Center at (877) GETVACC (438-8222), option 1. We wholeheartedly encourage using this resource to assist parents and active duty military members in making an informed decision regarding vaccinations.
Beyond the vaccines that virtually wiped out some of the most devastating and deadly diseases on earth, such as smallpox and polio, research continues on the latest illnesses facing not just our military population, but the entire world. Immunizations against Ebola and Zika viruses are in the works, and we hope to soon greet the news of those vaccines as the world did in the 1950s when Dr. Jonas Salk unveiled the vaccine against polio.
That baby I mentioned earlier did make a full recovery and gave big smiles while his tearful parents hugged the medical team as they made their way to the hospital exit. There’s the old saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. During this Preventive Health Month, let’s remember that the ounce of prevention many times comes in the form of a small injection carrying a lifesaving vaccine. Through better science and education, we’ll make sure immunizations continue to be the best way we go from health care to health.
More information on immunizations and the impact for everyone in and associated with the military is available on our website.