Vaccines are rightly being pushed in virtually all parts of the health care system

December 5, 2013 

The awareness of the importance of vaccines is heightened here in the Triangle, given two huge teaching hospitals at UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke and the presence of WakeMed.

That’s excellent fortune for residents, who will, one hopes, aggressively pursue up-to-date vaccines for themselves and their children.

How important are things like the flu and pneumonia vaccines? Estimates are that there are 50,000 deaths a year from preventable diseases in the United States. Three adults in North Carolina have died after testing positive for the flu so far this flu season. Last year, 59 North Carolinians died from the flu.

The reasons people eschew vaccines vary, including the fact that more men than women simply don’t like going to the doctor and don’t keep up with vaccines they need to be getting. Many other patients have careful doctors who maintain records showing vaccine schedules and who have the vaccines waiting when they arrive for their annual physicals.

Some people fear needles. Others are somehow suspicious. And still others have bought into a research study in the United Kingdom dating back 15 years that linked childhood vaccines and autism. The study has been withdrawn, but severe damage was done, with some American media beating the drums against conventional vaccines.

Failure to get vaccines can be a life and death choice.

Dr. Daniel Gilstrap, a Duke physician and teacher, noted, “For adults there are obstacles we don’t see in children. Children have regular checkups. We’re surprised every year at the number of otherwise healthy people who die of influenza.”

Currently, there is a national campaign to promote vaccines, particularly those that can prevent or help prevent influenza, pneumococcal infections and shingles.

Here’s a curiosity: North Carolina’s own figures show that only 45 percent of adults get the flu vaccine, a rate lower than in the neighboring states of South Carolina and Virginia. Public health officials want that figure at 90 percent in just seven years.

There is such ample reasoning behind getting vaccines that it’s no wonder the push is on.

Consider that treating the preventable disease of flu costs the country $87 billion, money that could be going to a host of programs dealing with health care.

Communication about vaccines is better. Electronic records mean doctors can get access to detailed patient records more quickly.

And there’s the issue of health insurance coverage, which is more comprehensive when it comes to vaccines. The Affordable Care Act will likely bring down the cost of things like the shingles vaccine, an expensive shot whose price no doubt has been off-putting to some who need it.

Some doctors fear that because younger adults have grown up without facing the threat of polio or measles, they may not be aware of the importance of vaccines for many other diseases. And some may not believe vaccines are all that important because they don’t believe the diseases they help prevent are really life-threatening when they are.

We are left with the need for public health departments to communicate the need as best they can, for states to help, perhaps with advertising campaigns, for doctors and public clinics to continue to spread the word that the report that so set back vaccine programs for children was just wrong. Life is in the balance.

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