If you think back on your elementary school days, most of it will likely be a blur of recess taunts and gym class humiliations; but the most traumatic moments are locked in our brain, just waiting to be called up at a moment’s notice. For me, the horror of Vaccination Day looms large in my memories: the long lines winding down the hallway, ending in a room where the anxious entered and the violated exited. The anticipation of the line was always the worst, as you saw a stream of your young colleagues trying their best to be calm, only to exit gripping their bloodstained bandage, biting trembling lips (the Brave), or in fits of hysteria (the Suck).
My memory of vaccination is a grotesque scene: an overly made-up nurse wielding a needle of cartoon proportions, her fleshy, jiggly arm rising over her head so she could get enough to momentum to pierce even the most hesitant flesh. It was the glint of pleasure in her eye that I remember last, before everything went black. After they revived me, my mom promised that she would take me to the clinic where she worked (and where I got suckers!) to get my shots from then on. Despite that relief, I still pass out when I get a needle. I blame Nurse Ratchet.
So, imagine my disappointment when, in my mid-twenties, my mom reminds me that I should be thinking about getting a booster shot! Half of the glory of leaving high school and home was the relief of knowing I was an adult, and therefore would never need to get another booster in my whole, grown up life. I asked my doctor, and it turns out Mom was right (she usually is): we need to keep up our shots, even as grown ups.
When you were a baby, you were given vaccination shots. What vaccinations you were given depends on several factors, including where you were born, the year you were born, and any medical wild cards that your health may have presented. For example, if you were born in Canada today, your vaccinations (usually administered between birth and 23 months) would have included diphtheria, tetanus, polio, acellular pertussis, measles, mumps, rubella, varicella, pneumococcal, meningococcal C, Haemophilus influenza, nd influenza. Recognize any of these? Maybe a couple? Well, most of those vaccines are important in your childhood (and sometimes again in your twilight years), due to heightened exposure and possibly a weaker immune system.
Most parents, and children, take vaccinations for granted, and it is not until you are older and wish to avoid any further vaccinations at any cost, that you start to question: do I really need these? Many of the vaccinations you receive as a child protect you against disease for a good chunk of your life. When you get a vaccination shot, what you are essentially getting is a weakened shot of the disease that you are aiming to prevent. The weak presence of disease in your system triggers your immune system to identify the disease and form antibodies to fight it. These antibodies will stay in your system, fighting future strains of the disease at stages early enough to stop it.
If you are a person, or have a child, who has an immunodeficient condition (meaning that the immune system is compromised), then vaccinations may not be an option for you. If your immune system is not strong enough to build an antibody defense against even weak disease, then the vaccinations would be deadly, rather than potentially life-saving. Vaccination still has an effect on those with weak immune systems, however. If the people around you have received vaccinations for common diseases, then you are protected by what is called “herd immunity.” That is to say that if the people around you are immune to a disease, they will not carry it, therefore reducing the risk of infection for the non-vaccinated.
There is some controversy about infant vaccinations. There is a very vocal contingent of people who place the blame of the increased incidence of autism in North America on a specific childhood vaccination. This is still a controversial issue, as the scientific community has not been able to prove anything beyond correlation. Those who push the importance of immunizations tout it as being the single most important medical advance in the last hundred years, preventing more disease than any other procedure.
Your last childhood shot usually occurs sometime in high school, around the age of 16. If you got your childhood shots, then this is simply what is called a “booster” shot. Some vaccines need to be re-administered every decade or so to ensure their effectiveness. The most common booster shot is called the Tdap, and prevents diphtheria, tetanus, and acellular petussis. You should get this every 10 years (e.g. if your last one was at 16, then at 26, 36, and so forth). Increasingly common is an annual flu (influenza) shot for children, the elderly, and people working in fields such as health care, or care of the elderly or young.
There are other vaccinations that you may want to consider, depending on your lifestyle or job. If you are exposed to unprotected sex, intravenous drugs, or people with serious liver disease, you should consider getting vaccines for Hepatitis A and B. Hepatitis B is spread through contaminated body fluids, usually through sex or shared needles. Hepatitis A is spread through contact with contaminated food or fluids and is much more common.
Because Hepatitis A can be spread fairly easily, it is also a commonly recommended travel shot. Other common shots include cholera, Japanese encephalitis, polio, rabies, typhoid, and yellow fever. In fact, some countries require proof of certain vaccinations before you can enter, so best you do your research months before you leave. Many of these vaccinations require time and multiple shots over time, so go see your doctor 2 to 3 months before your departure. Your doctor should know what you need, but it never hurts to do a little research on your own. The Centre for Disease Control (CDC) website maintains an updated list of recommended and required vaccinations for any destination.
While, in an ideal world, I would never again have to relive the Booster Shot experience, a shot and minor fainting spell every ten years does seem like a small price to pay for the health that we in a developed nation take for granted. Get out and do your part to vaccinate the herd.