By Linda Bell, M.D.
Director, Bureau of Communicable Disease Prevention and Control
Thanks to vaccinations, diseases such as polio and diphtheria are becoming rare in the United States. Some physicians rarely — if ever — treat a case of measles.
That’s what makes vaccination one of the most successful public health accomplishments of the 20th century. It reduces the spread of disease and prevents complications and deaths.
But that success does not mean that the diseases vaccines help prevent are no longer a threat.
Although we have seen significant reductions in – even the elimination of – certain diseases, there were nearly 7,800 reports of vaccine-preventable diseases in South Carolina in 2016. Of 238 disease outbreak investigations the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control conducted last year, 29 percent were influenza outbreaks.
Many of those flu cases occurred in schools and nursing homes, which serve people who often have complications from the flu. The age groups with the highest rates of hospitalizations for flu included children ages 4 and younger and individuals older than 65. Unfortunately, 94 deaths from the flu have been reported in South Carolina during the 2016-17 flu season, which ends the end of September.
We also continue to see cases of whooping cough, bacterial meningitis, hepatitis A and B and other vaccine-preventable diseases, and they will increase unless we get more people vaccinated. The number of people receiving vaccines in South Carolina and the U.S. has declined in recent years.
Still, the fact remains that vaccines protect entire populations from multiple diseases. But questions remain.
Are vaccines effective? While no vaccine offers 100 percent protection, they are extremely effective.
How well a vaccine prevents illness varies based on the type of vaccine and the individual’s health status. For example, the flu vaccine does not protect the elderly as well as it protects younger people. However, studies suggest that elderly people vaccinated against the flu have less severe disease, are less likely to be hospitalized and are less likely to die from the flu.
While there can be adverse effects from vaccines, severe adverse events are rare and occur far less often than complications from vaccine-preventable diseases. Although questions have been raised about whether there is a relationship between autism and vaccines, research does not show any such link.
Do vaccines have risks? Yes, vaccines — like all medications — have potential risks that must be weighed against the benefits. The risks are quite low and are comparable to those associated with prescription and over-the-counter medication. The benefits are significant in protecting the public health and in cost-savings. Ask your health care provider about what vaccines are best for you as well as potential risks based on your health factors.
In July the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics published a study showing that a 5 percent decrease in the number of children ages 2 to 11 vaccinated against the measles in the United States could triple the number of measles cases in that group and significantly increase the cost of controlling disease outbreaks. Of great concern is that the article reveals that several regions in the country are just above the level of vaccine coverage needed to prevent measles outbreaks. If vaccination levels drop further, we could see a sharp rise in measles cases, one of the most highly contagious diseases known.
We continue to see preventable illness, hospitalizations and, unfortunately, deaths in South Carolina from influenza, whooping cough, meningitis, hepatitis B, and other vaccine-preventable diseases. Every year U.S. travelers are infected after being exposed to diseases while abroad. Infected people can begin spreading a disease before they show symptoms. Numerous outbreaks have occurred in communities with low vaccination rates.
DHEC is working to increase vaccine coverage in South Carolina by enhancing partnerships with other vaccine providers, offering vaccines in schools and communities, improving technology that tracks vaccinations and simplifies access to immunization certificates, and — most importantly — educating people about the risk of diseases that can be prevented with vaccines.
While vaccines help prevent the spread of disease, their effectiveness relies on people being vaccinated. That’s where you can help. It is important that everyone – not just children – get immunized.
We have had great success combating diseases through vaccination. Let’s not lose ground now.