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Managing Illnesses

Vaccines: What Are They For, and Why Do We Need Them?

Smiling child who had a vaccine
Smiling child who had a vaccine

Ian Culbert

Executive Director, Canadian Public Health Association

Why do you think vaccines are overlooked by adults?

Ian Culbert: Many people think vaccines are just for children and once they’ve received all their childhood immunizations, they think they’re good for life. Others aren’t even aware of the vaccinations they should keep up to date with as adults. People are busy and don’t necessarily keep track of their immunization records. They assume their family doctor will tell them if they need a vaccination, however, this is not always the case.

Where does vaccine hesitancy in Canada stem from?

It often stems from false and misleading reports of harms associated with vaccination. Also, the “I’m just one person” syndrome — parents and guardians may think that if every other child gets vaccinated, then their child/children don’t have to. Lastly, a lack of awareness of the potential harm that can be caused by a vaccine-preventable disease (either to their own child or to an immuno-compromised child). Few people have seen a child suffer through measles or mumps or even a serious case of seasonal influenza. As such, they may discount how serious these diseases are, and undervalue the importance of being immunized.

Why is it important for Canadians to get vaccinated throughout their lives?

There are a number of reasons to stay up to date with your vaccinations throughout your life. If you travel, especially to tropical environments, you want to make sure you’re immunized against diseases such as yellow fever, hepatitis A and B, and typhoid fever. Of course, getting the annual seasonal influenza vaccine is your best first line of defence against getting sick with influenza or spreading it to loved ones.

What are some vaccine-preventable diseases that are of particular concern to Canadians?

It’s important that children receive all of the recommended vaccines according to the schedule set out by each province and territory. This is the foundation of a healthy childhood free from vaccine-preventable diseases such as mumps, measles, rubella, pertussis (whooping cough), and polio. For boys and girls, getting the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine can help prevent a range of serious, life-threatening cancers in adulthood. Adults need to remember to get a new tetanus vaccine every 10 years and should consider being vaccinated against pneumococcal disease and herpes zoster (also known as shingles).

What can we do to encourage more people to get vaccinated?

Remind them that vaccines are safe and effective and continue to debunk myths about vaccines and false reports about their harm. Vaccinations are part of a healthy lifestyle and healthy aging. As we age, our immune systems don’t work as well and vaccinations are required to help keep us healthy. Vaccine-preventable diseases such as seasonal influenza can lead to serious complications or even death and therefore it’s important for adults, especially older adults, to maintain their vaccinations.

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