An Itch You Don’t Want To Scratch

By a show of hands, who here has had the pleasure of having varicella, more commonly known as chickenpox?  Odds are if you were born in the eighties (or before) you had a run in with those intensely itchy little bumps.  Being invited to a “Pox Party” to spread the virus around to the neighborhood children almost seemed like a rite of passage.  Now before anyone gasps at the thought of such an event, remember that before the varicella vaccination there were an estimated 3.7 million cases in the early 1990’s alone.  Children under the age of fifteen represented approximately 90% of those cases with half of all cases occurring between the ages of five and nine.  To be fair, it was really a matter of when you would contract the illness, not if.   For the majority of children, the highly contagious disease associated with a blister-like rash, itching, tiredness, a mild fever, and lasts approximately five to ten days.  Because chickenpox is still commonly viewed as an early childhood illness, unvaccinated adolescents and adults often feel as though they are safe from contracting the disease, but don’t be fooled.  Varicella can affect anyone, at any age.

So here’s the question, is it necessary to vaccinate older children and adults from varicella?  Simply put, yes.  Older children and adults who take on the risk of exposure and infection are just as prone to contracting the disease and are actually considered to be at higher risk for serious and possibly life-threatening complications such as, bacterial skin infections, toxic shock syndrome, pneumonia, and encephalitis (swelling of the brain).  An important fact to remember, a majority of people who have died from the disease were considered to be healthy before they acquired chickenpox.

According to Dr. Julie Boom, director of the Immunization Project and assistant professor of pediatrics at Texas Children’s Hospital as well as an associate professor at Baylor College of Medicine, “Vaccination is important for adolescents and adults because as you get older you are more likely to have severe side effects; particularly varicella pneumonia which can be deadly.”  She goes on to say:

“People under estimate chickenpox; it is a potentially devastating disease that claims the lives of both children and adults every year.”

Dr. Boom also explains that as an added bonus of immunization, “people who have received the recommended chickenpox vaccination also have a decreased incidence of shingles later in life,” and she encourages anyone in their late teens and beyond or who contracted varicella prior to the age of one to get vaccinated.

The misconception of chickenpox as a childhood illness that is merely a nuisance requiring a few days rest is a dangerous interpretation of the disease and its possible outcomes.  The truth is varicella does not discriminate based on age and anyone who is unvaccinated is susceptible to this vaccine-preventable disease.   While chickenpox was a minor inconvenience for many of us as children, there is no longer a need to suffer through the illness and take on a list of life-threatening complications that can occur as a result.  Don’t let age be an excuse to be unprotected.

Roll of the Dice

Let’s play the “what if” game.  What if you decided not receive your annual influenza (flu) vaccination?  And what if you were one of the 5 to 20 percent of Americans who are diagnosed with the flu every year?  And what if you then fell into the estimated 200,000 who develop a flu-related complication ranging from an ear or sinus infection to pneumonia or bronchitis?    And to add one more layer onto this game, what if you were then bunched in with the estimated 36,000 Americans who lose their life each year to this vaccine-preventable disease? Does that sound like a game worth playing?

Foregoing recommended vaccinations is a gamble, plain and simple. Deciding not to vaccinate (whether it be for yourself or your children) does not guarantee the wrath of a vaccine-preventable disease, but it also leaves you vulnerable to them.  In terms of the flu, there are many people who have never received the recommended immunization and have been fortunate enough to side step illness, but  there is no way to predict who will or will not contract the disease.  Just because you have never gotten the flu, doesn’t mean you never will.  And let’s not forget the long list of people you could inadvertently expose to the flu who are considered to be at a high-risk of developing complications or even death due to pre-existing medical conditions, age, and even ethnicity.  I fell into this high-risk category myself during the H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic.  At the time, I was pregnant with my daughter and trying to find providers who actually had the vaccine in stock was a task to say the least.  It was frightening to know that this highly contagious disease was spreading through the country and that I was more likely to develop complications due to my pregnancy.  Knowing those complications could affect the health of my unborn child was the most frightening of all.  Fortunately, my obstetrician’s office received a shipment of the vaccines within a few weeks of its release and I was able to cross off an item of my list of mommy-to-be worries.

Being unprotected against the flu, or any vaccine-preventable disease, is a dangerous risk that no one expects to be affected by.  While there is no guarantee that you will be one of the millions affected by the flu each year, there is no guarantee you won’t.  If you want to gamble, head for the Vegas strip, but don’t roll the dice on your health!

Degree Not Disease

Can you believe that summer is almost over?  In a few short weeks millions of high school graduates will embark on a journey of education and newfound freedom as they begin their college careers.  I vividly remember my freshman year living in a cramped dorm room when a nasty little stomach virus made its way through the halls.  Living in such close quarters, there was no escaping the germs that had infested our building.  While stomach bugs and late night study sessions may be unavoidable, there is one thing that Texas college and university students will be protected against this fall, bacterial meningococcal disease (bacterial meningitis).

The Jamie Schanbaum and Nicolis Williams Act and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB), have helped to make Texas college campuses a safer place thanks to legislation requiring all entering students to show proof of an initial dose of the meningococcal conjugate vaccine (MCV4) or booster dose during the five-year period before enrolling. While it is important that adolescents receive all the vaccinations recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), this vaccine is especially important to college students who find themselves living in cramped quarters and attending packed classes.  Studies have shown that teens living in dorms are six time more likely to contract the highly contagious disease than those in the general population.  When you factor in a coed’s typically unhealthy lifestyle habits consisting of sleep deprivation, unbalanced nutrition, and exposure to alcohol the risk rises.  The disease which claims the lives of ten to thirteen percent of its victims can have life-long consequences as is the case with University of Texas student Jamie Schanbaum who recovered from the disease, but not before enduring months in the hospital, multiple amputations, and dozens of skin grafts to repair the damage that had been done.  While antibiotics are effective in treating the disease, early symptoms are so general (fever, malaise, rash, and stiff neck) they are commonly overlooked.  Just last year this vaccine-preventable disease caused the untimely death of Nicolis Williams.  Williams,  a student who lived off campus and attended my alma mater Texas A&M University, was misdiagnosed with influenza (flu) and tragically died four days later at the age of twenty.

Unfortunately the passage of this legislature comes too late for some but I am proud to say that Texas now leads the country as the first state to require universal vaccination for college admission.  It is an important step in the right direction and is an invaluable tool that will save countless lives.  A college student’s focus should be on obtaining a degree, not worrying about avoiding a deadly vaccine-preventable disease.

Freedom To Protect

Images of fireworks and the smell of the outdoor grill all enter into our minds when we think about the Fourth of July, but we all know that it represents much more.  It is a date that reaffirms the many freedoms that we should all take a moment to reflect on and be grateful for.  As Americans, we are given the ability to make our own choices and decide our own paths; rights that many are not afforded elsewhere.  Having the opportunity to vaccinate our children and ourselves is a privilege that is often over looked, but weighs heavily on the scale of opportunities we should be thankful for each day.

We all take things for granted.  I know I certainly don’t think how fortunate I am every time I turn on a light switch or get a glass of clean water out of my kitchen faucet, and the same can be said for our appreciation of access to life-saving vaccinations.  When I take my children to receive their recommended immunizations or roll up my sleeve to receive my annual flu vaccination, I have never really put much thought into the fact that world-wide epidemics of vaccine-preventable diseases continue to exist and consistently devastate communities each year.  Only a few short months ago, the people of Ghana held a three-hour long celebration complete with a float and brass band to celebrate the roll out of two new vaccines protecting children from the continent’s deadliest infant diseases, rotavirus and pneumonia.   In the United States, some parents view vaccinations as a nuisance that requires time off from work and a visit to the doctor.  There has even been an alarming trend of parents spreading out immunizations in an attempt to make vaccinations safer and easier for children to tolerate which actually puts children, who are most vulnerable, at risk of contracting potentially life-threatening diseases. “Although overall vaccine coverage remains high, 40% of parents say they have deliberately skipped or delayed a shot for their children.”

The next time you dread taking your child in for a scheduled immunization, or you think about skipping out on your annual flu vaccination, remember that you are privileged.  You have the ability to protect yourself and your family against vaccine-preventable diseases, an opportunity others would literally throw a party for!  Just as you would celebrate our country’s freedom, celebrate your right to protect your family from vaccine-preventable diseases.  Don’t take your freedom for granted.