Recently, a friend asked me what I consider to be the biggest health care game-changers in the past century. I could list some right way, and found more when we looked it up together on the Internet.
It’s an impressive list: anesthesia, randomized clinical trials, radiologic imaging, improved cardiac care, clean water, to name a few. I can’t even imagine how hard it would be to rank these advances in medicine in terms of importance. Where would you put better sanitation in relation to antibiotics, for example? Still, there’s no questioning the list. And near the top would have to be vaccinations.
Recognizing One of the Greatest Achievements in Public Health
Immunizations are one of the most important public health advances in our nation’s health history. So much so, that August 2017 has been deemed National Immunization Awareness Month by the CDC. And awareness is the key word. All too often folks may feel they are protected when, in fact, they may not be.
Awareness is the Key to Immunization
I still vividly remember the one and only tetanus patient I took care of when I was an intern. In fact, tetanus has become so rare and so preventable that it is uncommon, nowadays, to meet a physician who has treated it. My patient, in her early 60s, could not remember whether she had ever completed a tetanus series as a child; she knew, for sure, that she had never had a tetanus booster.
It was the summer and she was barefoot, mowing her grass, and cut her foot on a rock in the soil. Although this patient was lucky enough to receive tetanus antitoxin, she still spent months in the intensive care unit on a ventilator while we waited for her muscle spasms to slowly resolve — months that wouldn’t have been necessary had her immunizations been up-to-date. (Another amazing health care advance of the 20th century: the ICU!)
Progress Makes it Easy to Forget Medical Advancements
It is easy to forget that the top causes of death in the United States in 1900 were infectious diseases — not heart disease, not cancer, not diabetes, not COPD. Most people didn’t die from a chronic illness, but rather from an acute illness, like tetanus. Not long ago, people feared diseases like polio. In fact, there are still folks alive today who lived through the polio epidemic of the 1940s – ’50s.
While the polio vaccine is often recognized for its profound effect on public health, the smallpox vaccination probably saved more lives. And just think of how many lives we could have saved if the flu vaccine had been around before the 1918 “Spanish” flu epidemic.
One of the best sources of information about vaccines and immunization is the Vaccines & Immunization page on the Centers for Disease Control website. Here are some points to keep in mind:
- All adults should receive vaccines to protect their health, even healthy adults. Everyone should see their doctor or health care provider to have their vaccination needs assessed. Certain vaccines are recommended based on a person’s age, occupation, or health condition.
- Being vaccinated doesn’t necessarily mean your body will develop full immunity to the disease targeted by the vaccine but it certainly increases the likelihood that you will survive the disease.
- Vaccination is important for two reasons. One is that it protects the person receiving the vaccine and a second reason is that it helps prevent the spread of disease, particularly amongst our most vulnerable; babies and elderly.
Immunization Schedules and Recommended Vaccinations
Because immunization schedules vary depending on your age and gender, it’s important to talk with your doctor about recommended vaccinations. Our Preventive Care Guidelines are a good place to start; there, you’ll find a list of vaccinations and age recommendations.
And remember, talk to your provider before you travel abroad as you may need special vaccines to protect you against diseases common in other parts of the world.
Medicare and Immunizations
As a doctor, I know that it’s critically important that patients know what immunizations are recommended for them. Medicare members also need to know which ones are paid for by Medicare. The way Medicare covers them depends on which vaccines you need, so it’s very important that you look at your Summary of Benefits.