Remember why vaccines are so important
Easy to forget how devastating infectious diseases, such as Spanish flu and smallpox, were to the people’s health globally
Last week, my colleagues at Public Health Ontario set up a quarantine tent at the MaRS Discovery District. But instead of keeping the public away from the isolation area, the idea was to expose people to the harsh realities of vaccine-preventable illnesses.
Clad in period dress and made up to look like they had diseases, such as smallpox, measles or Spanish flu, a team of public health experts played the roles of people affected by real-life outbreaks throughout Ontario’s history.
Their goal was to help shed light on how they affected families and communities before vaccines existed.
The interactive event was part of National Immunization Awareness Week, but like many of my colleagues working in public health, I think about vaccination all year round.
As a family doctor, I provide patients of all ages with the shots they need to stave off avoidable sickness.
From early childhood inoculations that babies receive in their first 18 months of life to the shingles and pneumococcal bacteria vaccines recommended for adults beginning at age 65, there are vaccines to help us stay healthy throughout our lifespan.
I also work as an epidemiologist, doing research to answer questions about vaccination, such as how many people receive immunizations, who gets them and what kind of impact programs such as the annual flu shot campaign have at a population level.
One reason I’m passionate about this work is that vaccines have had tremendous health benefits. They’re one of the most successful and cost-effective interventions available. They save lives and avert the suffering associated with illnesses, such as pertussis (whooping cough) or mumps.
A recent outbreak of mumps in Toronto drew attention to the need for adults born between 1970 and 1992 to check their vaccination status to be sure they are protected from the highly contagious — and potentially dangerous — illness.
The most common symptoms include sore and swollen salivary glands, fever, headache, muscle aches and fatigue. In males, this virus can also cause inflammation of the testicles. Mumps often clears on its own, but in rare cases there can be serious complications, such as deafness or inflammation in the brain or the tissue covering the brain and spinal cord.
It’s presumed that anyone born before 1970 would have been infected naturally; people born after 1992 should have received two doses of a mumps-containing vaccine as part of the regular immunization schedule. If you’re in the 25-47 age range — or if you were born outside Canada — you might have only received one dose of the vaccine.
Outbreaks of measles have also occurred in recent years — and it’s one of the most contagious infectious diseases around. The measles vaccine is highly effective, so it’s important to make sure yours is up-to-date, particularly if you plan to travel to places where measles spreads regularly. Conveniently, the measles and mumps vaccines are grouped together in a single vaccine.
One day, I’d love to see a comprehensive immunization registry to help Ontarians and their health-care providers keep track of all the vaccines they have received. But for now, it’s up to all of us to keep track of our own immunizations.
If you receive a vaccine, be sure to record it and let your doctor know. Family physicians like me can put that information into your chart and print it out if you need it. But, if you got the shot from another health-care provider and don’t tell us, we won’t have any way of knowing that.
Although we still offer people the yellow paper vaccination cards so they can keep their own records, a tool called CANImmunize offers a digital option. The free app can be used to keep track of your vaccinations and those of your children or other family members. You can also use the app to get reminders for routine immunizations or boosters.
For many people, it’s tough to imagine what it’s like to live through an outbreak of smallpox or Spanish flu. In a way, vaccines have become a victim of their own success. They’re so effective that it’s become easy to forget how devastating the diseases vaccines prevent are.
We’re fortunate that immunization eradicated smallpox and that other illnesses, such as diphtheria and polio, are now rarely seen in Canada. But it’s important to remember that we can all play a part in preventing history from repeating itself.
Jeff Kwong is an associate professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine and the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. He is also a scientist at Public Health Ontario, a senior scientist at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences and a family physician with the Toronto Western Family Health Team. Doctors’ Notes is written by members of the U of T Faculty of Medicine. Special to Toronto Star
Shelly Bolotin, a scientist with Public Health Ontario, is made up to look like she has smallpox at a recent immunization awareness event in Toronto at the MaRS Discovery District.