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What You Should Know About Vaccines

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The content of this article is based on an interview conducted in February 2019 with Dr. Gonzalo Bearman, Chair of the Division of Infectious Diseases at VCU Health System.

Every year, tens of millions of people receive vaccinations, helping them stay safe from diseases like mumps, smallpox and influenza (flu). 

But what are vaccinations, and how do they work? Do they have side effects or risks?

What Is A Vaccine? How Do Vaccines Work?

A vaccine is a tool that helps your immune system learn how to fight off a harmful virus or bacteria. (Vaccination is sometimes called “immunization”.) A vaccine is like a tackling dummy or a cardboard target.

Here’s how it works: the vaccine you get – usually by an injection (a shot) – contains the virus or bacteria that you’re being vaccinated against. But it’s a virus or bacteria that’s been weakened, or “nerfed”. It’s not at full-strength. In some cases, it’s already dead.

Either way, your immune system can learn from it and prepare a defense against it, in case another one ever shows up again. By having a “practice” encounter with a nerfed virus or bacteria, your body is better able to fight off the full-strength version.

So, vaccines help your immune system to practice and learn, and get ready for the real thing.

Which Diseases Do Vaccines Prevent?

Vaccinations are one of the biggest reasons we’re so much healthier than people who lived centuries (or even just 100 years) ago.

Just think of how many diseases that, today, are virtually gone, but that used to affect millions of people:

  • Mumps
  • Measles
  • Rubella
  • Smallpox
  • Polio

There’s a good chance you don’t know anyone who has had any of these diseases. Vaccines have been a huge factor in keeping us safe from them.

Are Vaccines Safe?

Do vaccines carry any risks? Of course, they do, just like most medications, therapies and surgeries have the risk of harmful side effects.

But the risks from vaccines are incredibly small, and many of the conditions that vaccines are accused of causing – such as autism – are not, in fact, caused by vaccines.

On the other hand, vaccines buff your defensive capabilities against a host of diseases. So, little or no risk of harm, but a high chance of benefit: vaccines are simply a good bet.

An Example: Flu Shots

Think about influenza – sometimes it’s just called “the flu” – and the flu vaccine: the flu vaccine contains a dead virus. There is no way it can make you sick, any more than you could get bitten by a dead mosquito.

But the live flu is still out there, jumping from one person to another, and it’s likely that your body will have to fight it off at some point. As we described earlier, the vaccine helps you safely develop the tools to win that fight.

So, get your flu shot. And get all the other vaccinations you and your family need. They’re there to keep you healthy.

Which Vaccines Are Mandatory or Required?

The vaccine and immunization requirements for schools and day cares vary a bit across the nation.

For Virginia, you can find the list of mandatory vaccinations here: www.vdh.virginia.gov/immunization/requirements

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has put together a list of the requirements for each state here: www.cdc.gov/phlp/docs/school-vaccinations.pdf

And the CDC has a list of recommended immunizations for children and adolescents for 2019: www.cdc.gov/vaccines/schedules/hcp/imz/child-adolescent.html

Are There Any Vaccine Exemptions?

Depending on which state you live in, there are reasons you can be exempt from getting a vaccine. For instance, if you have a specific allergy, or a religious objection.

The CDC has a chart outlining vaccination exemptions state-by-state. You can find it here: www.cdc.gov/phlp/publications/topic/vaccinations.html

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