HANCOCK - For years, childhood vaccination rates rose steadily, according to Western U. P. Health Department Medical Director Teresa Frankovich, M.D. But then came well-publicized research linking the measles, mumps and rubella (MMIR) vaccine to autism.
"That research has been proven fraudulent, but it's very hard to unring the bell," Frankovich said, adding that celebrities with no medical training played a role in misinforming the public.
As a result, she said, there are now measles outbreaks in New York and California, a recurrence of a disease that had been all but eradicated.
"Most people in this country have never seen measles," Frankovich said. "People forget that there was a lot of death."
The vaccine, on the other hand, is "incredibly safe," she said, noting that adverse reactions were uncommon, and limited to swelling and fever at the worst.
Currently, Frankovich said, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention generally recommend immunization against 17 different diseases, though not everyone needs every singe shot. The majority of vaccinations are designed for children, but there are some recommended at every stage of life.
"My overall take is it's one of the most important public health things in history, right up there with clean water," Frankovich said.
Many of the most important vaccines are recommended for infants and toddlers, including the MMR, the Hepatitis B vaccine, and the Diphtheria, tetanus and acellular pertussis3 (whooping cough) vaccine. Frankovich said early childhood immunizations are generally easy to keep up with as most infants and toddlers are scheduled for well-child visits.
But when parents hold off on vaccination, the consequences can be devastating.
"When it's delayed that becomes a window of opportunity for disease," she said. "Many diseases impact younger children."
One of the biggest current challenges for health departments is inoculating preteens against Human Papillomavirus, or HPV, Frankovich said. HPV, which causes genital warts, is America's most common sexually transmitted disease. But it also can lead to several types of cancer later.
She said many parents reject the idea of inoculating preteens against what begins as an STD, but Frankovich said inoculating before children begin having sex is the most effective practice.
"We know they're not sexually active," she said. "But we want to inoculate long before they are."
Senior citizens also tend to get most of the recommended vaccines, Frankovich said. Seniors should get boosters against tetanus, pertussis and pneumococcal diseases, as well as the vaccine against shingles.
And then there's the flu, which is especially dangerous for seniors, who tend to have weaker immune systems.
"The nice thing is that seniors are probably one of the largest groups to be proactive about being immunized for the flu," Frankovich said, adding that actually, everyone would be better off with a flu shot.
"This year there were more healthy young adults hospitalized, mostly with the H1N1 strain," Frankovich said. Also, if you're immunized, "You're not out coughing and spreading it," she said.
Contrary to myth, it's impossible to catch the flu from the vaccine, she said, since the vaccine doesn't use any live cultures. The vaccine does take about two weeks to become effective however, and it's also possible to catch a strain of influenza not included in the vaccination, or a powerful cold.
For adults, there aren't a lot of recommended immunizations, but keeping up with them can be a challenge. Frankovich said the health department can often access a statewide database to help if someone's lost track of their childhood records, and you can go to the CDC web site to check on what's recommended.
Frankovich said all adults should get a Tdap booster every ten years, especially when they're starting a family.
"Tdap includes the whooping cough vaccine, and whooping cough has been resurgent in recent years," she said. "It can be especially deadly in young children, and one of the easiest ways for a child to catch the disease is from a parent."
Adults who've never had the chicken pox should also get that vaccine, she added.
People of all ages should also look into extra vaccinations before traveling anywhere outside the U.S. and Canada, Francovich said.
Some people should get vaccinations to help them deal with certain chronic conditions, after discussing the situation with their doctor, Frankovich said.
Other conditions, she said, are contraindicated for certain inoculations, which means individuals shouldn't get the vaccination. Most vaccines that use live cultures, for example, aren't appropriate for someone with HIV or another condition that compromises the immune system. Or, if someone has had an allergic reaction to a vaccine, they should avoid it in the future.
If you're going online to learn about what vaccinations are right for you and your family, it can sometimes be hard to determine "what's good information and what's garbage," Frankovich noted. She recommended getting information from the CDC, cdc.gov; the Michigan Department of Community Health, michigan.gov/mdch; and for children, the American Academy of Pediatrics, aap.org.