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World Immunization Week is celebrated the last week of April. This year, join us in celebrating from April 24-30.
Vaccines have saved countless lives and are even credited with making some illnesses disappear.
Rigorous research, studies, and investigation before, during, and after vaccine development and approval ensure immunizations are safe and effective.
More than 11 billion doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been distributed around the globe, helping to slow the spread of the virus.
Parents are waiting to hear when the youngest children will be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine.
Heralded around the world and here in our own communities, vaccines have been credited with preventing severe illness and hospitalizations and have even eradicated some diseases – like smallpox.
This April, we’re celebrating the milestones we’ve reached as a community and the opportunities that lie ahead during World Immunization Week, which takes place the last week of April.
We sat down with Frank Bell, MD, and Dianne Glover, MD – both pediatric infectious disease physicians at Swedish – to learn more about the history of vaccines and why it’s so important for us as individuals and a community to get vaccinated.
Today, there are vaccines available for more than 20 life-threatening diseases. Vaccines are credited with saving roughly two to three million lives around the world – every single year. Not only do they prevent deaths and hospitalizations, but these safe and effective immunizations also prevent serious illness. And no one likes to be sick – or watch their child or other loved one suffer through an unnecessary illness.
“In the early 1900s, one in five children died before they reached five years of age mostly from what are now vaccine-preventable deaths,” shares Dr. Glover. “There are so many diseases we can prevent with vaccines. I’m just a real believer in protecting babies, children, and adults by giving them vaccines that are generally safe and save them from suffering from terrible diseases.”
Dr. Bell adds, “Along with the provision of clean water and sanitation, vaccines are credited with some of the greatest improvements in public health this century. Vaccines have eliminated the scourge of smallpox and are close to eliminating polio – both extraordinary achievements in global health."
Studies and research completed on vaccines and overseen by organizations like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and The World Health Organization (WHO) have led to clear recommendations and guidelines for vaccination in babies, children, and adults.
While vaccinations for kids are standard and expected by many parents, adults are sometimes surprised to learn that they’re due for immunizations even when they’re long out of school.
Below are the latest recommendations on vaccines for your age group:
Child and Adolescent Immunization Schedule (birth to age 18)
Adult Immunization Schedule (ages 19 years and older)
“Vaccines very rarely cause significant complications,” reassures Dr. Glover. “It’s an easy step to take to help protect your own health and your loved ones.”
How vaccines work
Most vaccines work by introducing a small, harmless piece of a germ and teaching your immune system to recognize it. The COVID-19 vaccines are particularly exciting for researchers because the vaccines use a different mechanism to teach the body to fight a specific infection – mRNA.
mRNA (or messenger RNA) provides instructions (or a message) on how your body can fight a particular infection. In the case of the COVID-19 vaccine, mRNA teaches your body how to make a harmless piece of the spike protein found in the COVID virus. The vaccine mRNA is then broken down by our bodies and removed.
Although mRNA was first brought to widespread use (and FDA approval) in the COVID-19 vaccine, scientists have been studying messenger RNA for use in vaccines for many years.
“There are many labs that have this technology, so they were essentially ready to go when COVID-19 first appeared,” explains Dr. Glover. “Now, we’re looking at all these exciting ways to continue to apply mRNA vaccines, including against cancer cells, autoimmune diseases and against big germs like malaria.”
Regardless of how our bodies learn to fight infection – whether it’s by introducing a harmless bit of germ or with mRNA, your immune system is doing the same type of work to learn how to protect itself from illness.
Dr. Bell elaborates, “By presenting our bodies with a small part of an infectious ‘agent’ or ‘adversary,’ such as bacteria or a virus, vaccines educate our immune systems. This helps train us to develop a rapid and effective defense against disease if we are exposed or become infected in the future. In this way, vaccines can build immunity without us having to get sick in the first place.”
Vaccines are carefully investigated, studied, and followed by regulatory agencies and independent researchers before they are approved, during rollout, and long after they are available to the public.
“A new vaccine is evaluated through a series of careful studies in large numbers of volunteers. Information from these studies is examined in detail by a series of regulatory agencies, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the CDC before a new vaccine is recommended for general use,” explains Dr. Bell.
Even after authorization, a dedicated panel of experts at the CDC continues to study the use of vaccines in communities and follow any reported side effects or adverse reactions.
Vaccines have been center stage over the last year thanks to the development and rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine. As of March 27, 2022, there have been more than 11 billion vaccine doses administered around the world. These vaccines have saved countless lives and prevented hospitalizations and serious illnesses.
“The COVID-19 vaccine has been a wonderful tool to help slow the pandemic and allow us to get on with some degree of normalcy,” states Dr. Glover. “This is a safe and very effective vaccine. COVID vaccines have been administered since December 2020, so any hidden side effect should have become apparent by now.”
Dr. Bell also points to the clear standards and protocols in place to develop a vaccine that allowed for the quick and safe development of the COVID-19 vaccines.
“Vaccine researchers were able to draw on many years of experience in the fight against other coronaviruses to help develop the COVID-19 vaccines,” he explains. “That head start along with a careful coordination of critical steps in vaccine development allowed scientists to develop, test and study the vaccine before seeking – and gaining – approval from regulatory agencies like the FDA.”
Young children and COVID-19 vaccines
COVID-19 vaccines and boosters are available for adolescents and adults, ages 12 and up. The authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5-11 in October 2021 came as welcome news to many parents. Unfortunately, a vaccine for younger children has not yet been finalized or approved. It’s understandable that parents of young children are feeling anxious and frustrated as theirs is the only age group not yet able to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Dr. Bell offers some words of encouragement to parents of younger children.
“It is important that any vaccine given to young children is as safe and as effective as possible. The immune systems of preschool children are less experienced than older kids and their encounters with other (non-COVID) coronaviruses may be different too,” he says.
“As it is for older children and teens, it’s important that the process of vaccine evaluation for preschool children is unhurried and complete. The fact that preschool-aged children have generally had the lowest risk of severe disease from COVID-19 makes it all the more important to ensure that vaccines for younger children are safe and have an acceptable rate of unwanted effects such as fever and discomfort at the vaccine injection site.”
Educate, empower and protect yourself, your family
This year, the theme of World Immunization Week is “Long life for all – in pursuit of a long life well-lived.” This celebrates the work we can all do to understand the importance of vaccines and encouraging our loved ones to become vaccinated against preventable diseases.
If you’re interested in learning more, try these helpful and reputable resources:
Find a doctor
Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult with a doctor virtually, you have options. Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, and provide instruction and follow-up as needed. If you need to find a physician, caregiver, or advanced care practitioner, you can use our provider directory.
Find out the latest updates on how we’re handling COVID-19.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.