We all know about the phenomenal job that vaccines do to prevent illness. They’re why smallpox doesn’t even exist anymore, polio is on its way to being eradicated and a study by the World Health Organization found that the global measles vaccination campaign has, in the past 15 years, saved the lives of 20 million children.
Not all vaccines, though, have the remarkable effectiveness rates of the measles vaccine, which protects 97 percent of people who are exposed to the extremely contagious disease. For some vaccine preventable diseases, there is a significant chance of falling ill even if vaccinated — the phenomenon is known as breakthrough disease -- but that should never stop people from being immunized.
For one thing, all vaccines reduce the chances of getting sick pretty drastically. Wouldn’t you rather be half as likely to get influenza, a miserable disease that kills thousands of Americans each year and leads to the hospitalization of hundreds of thousands?
Then there’s the lesser-known benefit of vaccines: For many of them, even if the vaccinated person gets the disease, it’s a much milder case. When it comes to potentially debilitating diseases like shingles, that can mean a lot.
Here then are some vaccines that not only steeply reduce people’s chances of falling ill, but also will help keep them more comfortable and possibly out of danger of debilitating side effects from those diseases even if they do get sick:
Shingles: The existing vaccine prevents the disease in half the people who receive it, according to the CDC. That’s a terrific benefit all by itself; shingles is a painful reactivation of the chickenpox virus.
But beyond that, according to a 2011 story in the New York Times, “The vaccine is also about 66 percent effective at preventing the worst complication of the disease, postherpetic neuralgia — pain that can linger for months or even years after the characteristic rash has cleared. The vaccine also reduces the incidence of ophthalmic herpes zoster, which can damage your eyes.”
The National Foundation for Infectious Disease concurs, stating in a report: “Although people who are vaccinated may still get shingles, they are likely to experience a milder case than un-vaccinated persons.”
Flu: As many people know, the effectiveness of the flu vaccine can vary from year to year, because in order to produce the vaccine, scientists must decide which strains to include long before flu season arrives. Sometimes it’s a great match, sometimes less so. Various research efforts are underway to find a faster method of producing the vaccine, which would allow much better matching.
Overall, according to the CDC, during fairly good match years, the vaccine reduces the chances of getting influenza by 50 to 60 percent. It may not sound high expressed that way, but it is a major preventer of disease:
“Flu vaccination prevented an estimated 13.6 million flu cases, 5.8 million medical visits and nearly 113,000 flu-related hospitalizations in the United States over a 6-year period (2005-2011),” the CDC reported. Those numbers would be much higher if more Americans got their annual shot.
And then there’s the added benefit: According to the CDC, the data suggests that vaccinated people who nonetheless get the flu stand a good chance of having a milder case.
Mumps: Mumps wasn’t always the relatively mild disease we tend to see these days. According to a story by NPR, in pre-vaccine days, “Mumps caused swollen testicles in 30 percent to 50 percent of post-adolescent men with mumps, and it affected the fertility of a quarter of those men.”
Dr. Dirk Haselow, the state epidemiologist in Arkansas, saw that difference when his state experienced a serious mumps outbreak that sickened more than 2,000 people last year. He told NPR that the numbers of mumps complications were far lower than would have been expected in the days before the vaccine. Only eight of the men and boys who caught mumps in the state developed swollen testicles, and there were no instances of brain inflammation, another potential complication.
"So it's very, very clear that the vaccine is actually making the mumps disease we've seen milder than expected," Haselow said.
Whooping cough: The vaccine against pertussis, or whooping cough, is 80 to 90 percent effective, according to the CDC.
“Among children who get all 5 doses of DTaP vaccine on schedule, effectiveness is very high within the year following the 5th dose — nearly all children (98 out of 100) are fully protected,” the CDC reports. But that ultra-high level of effectiveness doesn’t last particularly long. “About 7 out of 10 of children are fully protected 5 years after getting their last dose of DTaP vaccine.”
That doesn’t mean all protection is lost for the other 3 out of 10—if they do fall ill, they’ll get a less serious case.
“Recent studies have looked at if getting the vaccine (either DTaP or Tdap) can make a difference in your illness if you still get whooping cough,” the CDC reports. “These studies found that if you got the vaccine you are much more likely to have a mild illness compared to those who never received the vaccine. This means that if you get a whooping cough vaccine and still get whooping cough, you will
- Have fewer coughing fits
- Have shorter illness
- Be less likely to suffer from disease complications.”
Chickenpox: This is another highly effective vaccine, preventing the itchy, rash disease in 88 to 98 percent of those who have received both recommended doses. And there’s additional good news for the few who get sick:
“Sometimes vaccinated persons come down with chickenpox after vaccination but the illness is usually mild with less than 50 lesions,” the National Foundation for Infectious Disease reports.
Vaccines are the very best tool we have for preventing many serious and potentially serious illnesses. But they’re not perfect; they don’t confer immunity on every person who gets them. That’s why herd immunity is so important in contagious diseases: If enough people are vaccinated, the disease is kept out of the community, protecting everyone in it.
Still, it’s good to know that in an imperfect world, even if we should fall ill with a disease despite having gotten our shots, milder illness is often yet another side benefit of vaccination.
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