Thanks to the success of national vaccination and immunization programs, we have managed to take control over several debilitating infectious diseases. Polio, a crippling nerve degenerating viral infection, has been virtually eliminated from the United States because of an organized comprehensive prevention program. Vaccinations not only save lives, but millions of dollars as well. For every dollar spent on vaccines, several dollars are saved in reduced health care costs.
Immunization and vaccination are terms that are often used synonymously. However, immunization refers to the process of acquiring immunity, whereas vaccination refers to the administration of vaccines.
Immunization to certain diseases can be achieved from formulas called vaccines, which contain “antigens”, or parts of a specific virus or bacteria. When the antigens are introduced, the immune system creates a protein called an antibody or immunoglobulin targeted against it that enables the system to identify and fight the microorganism. The polio vaccine is the definitive example of a successful immunization program that has all but eradicated the polio virus. The polio vaccine is based on a live polio virus that is “attenuated” (weakened in the laboratory) so as to cause an immune response but not the disease itself.
Other types of vaccines that are used to stimulate antibodies are whole (living or inactivated) or fractionated bacteria, biosynthetic and toxoid (which actually is modified from a toxin produced by a bacteria).
Reducing the Risks of Immunization
The risk of side effects of immunization has been a concern of health professionals and patients alike. Side effects can include everything from mild physical discomfort in the form of rashes or body aches to more serious reactions that, in extreme instances, could be life threatening. The introduction of foreign agents into an individual always carries some risk.
As clinical trials establish the effectiveness and potential risks of new formulas, the benefits of vaccination (lower health costs, and lower pain, suffering and mortality) outweigh the negatives. Traditionally, these formulations have been based on the actual bacteria and viruses themselves that have been modified in laboratories. With the advent of genetic technology, new formulas based on DNA, which can be synthesized by scientists, are being tested and show great promise.
A major concern, particularly involving vaccines that were produced years ago (such as the current supply of smallpox vaccine) is the use of preservatives, such as thimerosal, that contain mercury. Thimerosal has been used as a vaccine preservative for over half a century; concerns about increased mercury concentration in food and other substances have made its use an issue.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, however, the single most important factor to be considered is the improvement in the quality of life and longevity for those receiving this kind of protection from illness. For both public health and economic reasons, the development of programs to immunize and protect the public from exposure to debilitating illnesses is an essential cornerstone of health care in the 21st century.