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National Immunization Month highlights importance of vaccines

August is National Immunization Awareness Month, a time doctors and health professionals use to educate the public about the importance of staying current on necessary vaccinations.

Dr. Joseph Zebley, a family physician based in Baltimore City, said the month is extremely important, both because of its message and its timeliness.

"The importance of a month to remember immunization is mainly to jog people's memory, and to do it at the end of the summer as we prepare for the influenza vaccine, and also as children are getting ready to return to school, so it's a critical time to remind people of the importance of both pediatric and adult vaccinations," he said.

John Stieger, project manager with the National Public Health Information Coalition, said the month provides an opportunity to reach out to people about the need for immunization.

"Well, we want to keep promoting awareness about the need for immunizations, not only for children but throughout the life span, and National Immunization Month gives us the opportunity to raise awareness about the importance of immunizations," he said.

During the month of August and throughout the year, many health professionals try to encourage individuals to make immunization a priority, both for themselves and their children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has several resources on its website, http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines, to guide both health care professionals and other individuals as to proper vaccination protocols.

One such resource, the National Immunization Awareness Month Communications Toolkit, designed by the National Public Health Information Coalition and the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, offers a four-section digital guide for health organizations and their members to use in order to reach out to the public.

"Our Communications Toolkit, which we put together, has a wealth of information and resources that are designed to help health departments," Stieger said.

Kristine Sheedy, director of communications for the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said it's important to give health professionals the tools they need to effectively communicate with their patients about immunization.

"While there are lots of sources of information out there, physicians and health care professionals do still remain at the top of the list as far as who people trust and turn to when it comes to immunization, and who's most influential when it comes to decision-making," she said. "So a large part of what we do is make sure that those providers out there have the resources they need to have conversations with their patients about vaccines and be able to answer their questions and make effective recommendations."

For health professionals, stressing the importance of immunizations for people of all ages is a primary goal during National Immunization Awareness Month.

"The older you get after you leave your parents' home, people do have a tendency not to pay quite as much attention to vaccines and the need for vaccines, even potentially people [might] need certain vaccines for traveling, and that's why we're especially interested in making sure that young adults and adults are aware of the need for vaccines," Stieger said.

Immunizations for adults range from the flu vaccine to vaccines administered before visiting certain countries, and can protect against a wide array of illnesses.

"There are certain illnesses that adults need to be aware of and prevent, things like, well there's a Zoster vaccine to prevent shingles, and that's for people over 60," Stieger said. "And then adults also need to get influenza vaccine every flu season. And they also need a tetanus shot every ten years."

Another important reason for adults to get vaccinated, according to doctors, is the prevention of illnesses in children with whom they may come in contact. One such form of protection is the TDAP vaccine, which stands for tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis, and is a one-time booster shot recommended for adults over the age of 35.

"We recommend that adults get vaccinated and one of the vaccines that adults get is a tetanus shot every ten years, but we're recommending that at least one of those in the ten year cycles be a TDAP, and that includes pertussis which is whooping cough, diphtheria and tetanus — all three," Zebley said. "We've asked that all adults in this country get a booster shot after the age of 35, pregnant moms get a TDAP shot and this is to protect the infant in the first six months of life before their own vaccines can take hold."

Sheedy said it's important to make sure you're up to date on vaccines, as needed immunizations can vary based upon individual circumstance.

"So adults may also need other vaccines depending on what age they are," she said. "There are some adults who may need their MMR vaccine — their measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. If you're an adult who was born in the U.S. in 1957 or later and you haven't gotten that MMR vaccine, then you need to get that, and it's just a one-time shot for most adults; however there are some adults, college students, international students or health care professionals who may need to get two doses … Once you get past those two vaccines that every adult needs [flu vaccine and TDAP], what you need is dependent upon how old you are, your health conditions, and in the case of health care workers, what you do for a living, as well as of course whether you do international travel."

The flu vaccine is one immunization on which doctors place a great deal of emphasis. Though many believe the flu is a minor ailment similar to the common cold and therefore choose not to get vaccinated, Sheedy said it's important to take the disease seriously.

"There are a number of reasons to get a flu vaccine and get one annually," she said. "A lot of people think that the flu is similar to the common cold but it's not. Influenza can be serious. We know that certain people are at higher risk from certain complications from flu … but really anyone can get influenza and anyone can potentially get seriously ill from influenza ... but folks need an annual vaccine because every year the vaccine is updated to include the flu strains that are predicted to predominate or circulate in the upcoming season."

Zebley said keeping up with vaccinations is a matter of societal importance, but he believes there are many resources available to people to get the immunizations they need.

"You need the society to really be invested, you need financial support for indigent people to get free vaccines, and in this country we have that, we have a program called VFC — Vaccines For Children — which provides vaccines to doctors' offices to give to children of parents who don't have money ... so we have a safety net for folks to take advantage of."

To ensure you are getting the proper vaccinations or to discuss concerns, health professionals agree that speaking with a trusted health care provider is best.

"We always say that the best thing to do is talk to your health care provider, they have the best information about what vaccines are needed at what points in life," Stieger said. "And if you're planning foreign travel, depending on where you may be going, there may be some vaccines you need for that as well so you don't catch some diseases in foreign places, so it's important to mention that to your health provider if you have any travel like that coming up."

Reach Times Staff Reporter Elaina Clarke at 410-857-3316 or elaina.clarke@communitytimes.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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