Quick quiz: What’s better for our health and well-being? Quitting a smoking habit, or getting treatment for emphysema? Learning to be more active and eat healthfully, or taking medications for Type 2 diabetes and risking the disease’s terrible complications?
In other words, as much as we benefit from top-notch hospitals and modern pharmaceuticals, any health care professional will tell you that the very best medicine prevents illness from happening in the first place rather than treating it afterward. And nothing prevents illness better or longer than vaccination.
Think of how many diseases are warded off through immunization: Polio crippled and killed thousands of American children in the middle of the 20th century before the vaccine was developed. Until the measles vaccine became available in 1963, 400 to 500 Americans died of the disease every year; 48,000 more were hospitalized. Whooping cough, mumps, tetanus, two types of hepatitis and most cases of cervical cancer – all of these and many more are preventable through safe and effective vaccination.
There’s even evidence that vaccination against pneumococcal disease prevents children’s ear infections by combating one of the most common bacteria that cause those infections. That means fewer kids taking antibiotics, which is important in this era of concern about antibiotic-resistant infections.
“There are not many things that a physician can do that will still be protecting a child rain or shine 10 years from now, or for their lifetime,” Matthew Daley, a pediatrician at Colorado Permanente Medical Group, said about vaccination in an interview last year. “It’s prevention at its best.”
This is National Public Health Week, an annual event that promotes the importance of wellness through preventive care, while reminding us of the role we all can play in protecting the health of our loved ones, our communities and our nation. People who smoke in enclosed spaces not only harm their own lungs but those of the people around them. People stricken with the flu can sicken elderly people for whom influenza is particularly dangerous. When we practice and model good health, that’s also what we help give to those around us. We prevent the misery of illness, lost days of work and school, and burgeoning health expenditures.
Remember that not everyone can be vaccinated; people with compromised immune systems, for example, cannot receive certain vaccinations. When we are vaccinated, we protect these vulnerable people’s health. Even very effective vaccines don’t result in immunity for a small minority of people. When we are vaccinated, we protect those people, too. During their first year of life, babies generally cannot be vaccinated against measles; those of us who have received our immunizations protect the youngest among us.
Some people don’t bother with the flu vaccine because its effectiveness rate isn’t among the highest. That’s unfortunate thinking; the more people who are protected, the less the disease, which kills tens of thousands of Americans each year, can circulate in our communities. And even effectiveness as low as 50 percent means that half the people won’t be sickened. They also won’t sicken others.
Here’s one example of the good that can result when the public accepts an important vaccine: Smallpox, which killed 300 million people worldwide in the 20th century alone, was declared eradicated worldwide in 1980 after a global vaccination campaign. As a result, people are no longer vaccinated against the disease. No one needs it anymore. International health workers are trying to do the same to polio.
Imagine how many diseases we could call extinct – how many vaccines would no longer even be needed -- if we joined together to protect public health through immunization.