Protecting the Herd Through Immunizations

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“Are you going to use a plastic needle? Or will you use the big, pointy, shiny one?” was my 4-year-old’s opener to nurse Eric as he anxiously awaited his annual visit.

He knew his wellness visit would be busy – his growth would be measured, he would have a discussion of his healthy habits, and he would endure his feared, but still necessary, immunizations.

Despite his very overactive imagination, it was hard to convince a 4-year-old that a painful shot today would protect him from an illness tomorrow. However, as a mommy doctor, I gave him the facts.

Vaccinations prevent against otherwise life and limb threatening diseases. Through the vaccination, he would create an “army” of fighter cells that could protect him if he would ever become exposed to the diseases I wanted him protected from the most. No, I wasn’t actually going to give him a dose of the real thing, but he would receive inactive forms of the illness and even particles that mimic others.

This small army of antibodies would be ready to attack the virus if he were ever exposed in the future. Granted, some of the diseases that are vaccinated against are typically benign, but they could result in further complications. For example, a simple case of chickenpox could lead to pneumonia, trouble breathing, and ultimately, death. By the end of our discussion, he gave me more trouble eating four bites of broccoli that day than he did in the doctor’s visit.

Now he knows that he will never have to deal with itchy chickenpox, the disabling polio virus or even a bout of the flu that could land him in the hospital. As parents, it is our number one job to protect our kids where we can, and vaccinations are essential to their well-being.

However, sometimes illness, weak immune systems or other factors can take away this security from parents and their children. Fortunately, because of something called “herd immunity,” kids who cannot get vaccinations may still be protected. It is very hard for illnesses to spread through a population of immunized people.

Viruses typically spread through direct contact or via airborne transmission. Exposure either results in infection and contagion, the passing on of the virus, or the virus is fought off and dies. When someone who is immunized is exposed to a virus, antibodies that were made at the time of vaccination are able to come together, fight and destroy the infection before it can be passed on. This minimizes the contagion.

The opposite is also true. In a population of poorly vaccinated individuals, there is no extra layer of protection, and those who are unvaccinated are left vulnerable because the virus won’t be stopped by prepared immune systems. These cases can lead to a disease outbreak that can spread very quickly.

This concept applies to most vaccinations. Active immunity is always preferred, and it is much more reliable than community immunity. So vaccinating our children is definitely the way to go.

For more information, check out or discuss with your child’s family doctor or pediatrician.

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