What you need to know about vaccines, and why they are so important

Immunizations are major public health interventions that help prevent the general population from diseases and infections.

They serve two purposes. The first is to protect the individual who gets the vaccination; the second is that if a sufficiently high percentage of the population is vaccinated, the actual spread of viruses and bacteria can be interrupted, limiting the spread of infection.

Infants/children

To me, understanding why vaccines work and how to administer them optimally has been a focal point of my research. For all vaccines, a primary consideration has always been safety. Vaccines that have reached approval for general use are all ones with an extraordinary record of safety.

There is an extensive list of immunizations that infants and children should receive, with many vaccines now combined with multiple components in them.

For infants under the age of two, there are a series of vaccines they should receive to protect them against the following diseases:

As children approach school age, their vaccines include boosters to many of the infant vaccines, and at age 11, they should receive Meningococcal and human papillomavirus (HPV). The Meningococcal vaccine prevents a rapid life-endangering form of sepsis and meningitis. The HPV vaccination goes a very long way in preventing cervical cancer in females and penile or rectal cancer in males.

The development of new and improved vaccines remains a dynamic field. While there are a number of things that go along with vaccinations to help prevent disease — such as the use of masks, hand-washing and quarantine when someone is sick — vaccines remain our most effective tool in preventing disease.

We need high levels of immunity to prevent the emergence or reintroduction of disease. Prevention measures complement our ability to treat sick children. On a global basis, immunizations are the only effective tools we have to prevent disease and are a shared public responsibility.

It is one we do well in northern New England — vaccination rates in New Hampshire and Vermont are among the highest in the country. Our physicians do a good job explaining the benefits of immunizations and talking to patients about the importance of vaccinations in how they help prevent disease.

Dr. Peter Wright, MD, is with the Division of Infectious Disease and International Health and Professor of Pediatrics at Dartmouth-Hitchcock.

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