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The information provided on the show is for general information purposes only. If you have a health problem, medical emergency, or a general health question, you should contact a physician or other qualified health care provider for consultation, diagnosis and/or treatment. Under no circumstances should you attempt self-diagnosis or treatment based on anything you have seen on the show.

There’s been a lot of talk around the country about the importance of immunizations in both children and adults with the Progressive Conservatives are taking a hard line on vaccinations in Nova Scotia. Recently, the party’s opposition leader proposed an amendment to their Health Protection Act that would require children entering the public school system to have proof of their vaccinations.

With plenty of different opinions floating around, it can be hard to differentiate fact from fiction when it comes to the truth about vaccinations, so Dr. Yoni Freedhoff stopped by to share with us everything we need to know about vaccines at any point in life.

For more information, be sure to watch our interview with Dr. Yoni in the video clip above.

Are vaccines safe?

Yes, they most certainly are, and perhaps a stroll through an old cemetery will help to remind of what life looked like before we had vaccines, where entire families were wiped out and where burying your children, sometimes multiple children within the same week or month, was not a rarity. Sadly it would seem that the price we’ve had to pay for eradicating vaccine-preventable diseases is forgetting the terror and horror of what life looked like before them. As to safety, vaccine safety, assessment, and monitoring are extensive beginning in the early days of a vaccine’s discovery and initial testing, through post-market surveillance.

Each vaccine given out must be proven to be safe and to work before it can be given out.

For as long as the vaccine is used in Canada, the quality and safety of the immunization are checked and rechecked by Health Canada scientists who review it and by the medical community who administer them.

Health complications

With all vaccines, it is possible that you may have an immune response. You might have a headache, you might have a low-grade fever, you might have a sore arm. With some of the live vaccines – which are the minority of them – you can get a slightly more vigorous reaction. In really rare cases you can have a strong allergic reaction. We administer vaccines in doctor’s office, in pharmacies, in specialized clinics where treatment for that rare, one in a million emergency is always on hand.

How to tell if you are up-to-date

There are different answers for different vaccines. Some vaccines we update regularly, like flu shots and tetanus. Others are a bit more complicated – for instance, the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine. If you were born between 1970 and 1996 you may have only received one shot rather than the currently provided two, and consequently you may not actually have immunity. Sometimes you might not have immunity even if you did receive the shots.

The only way to tell is to have your antibody titres measured by way of a blood test that will tell you if you’re immune, or you can simply choose to get boosted. The easiest way to explore your needs, of course, would be to discuss vaccinations with your family MD.

Dates of child vaccinations

Having up to date vaccinations is required for school attendance, and up to date means administered according to the vaccine schedule. If deemed not up to date, children can be suspended – not expelled – from school until proof of immunization is provided, but then they are permitted to return.

HPV vaccines in boys and girls

HPV causes 600,000 cancers and 250,000 deaths annually and this vaccine would prevent the majority of those, so it’s pretty important. In fact, there is nothing else in medicine that has this strong of an impact on cancer prevention. The cancers HPV causes are generally of the vulva, vagina, cervix and anus but also of the mouth and throat where HPV infections occurs consequent to oral sex. As to why it’s recommended at age 12, it’s most effective when the vaccine series is completed before exposure to HPV, and estimates are that half of kids will have had intercourse at least once before they finish high school, and more than that will have engaged in oral sex.

This is an important vaccine not just for girls to receive, but boys as well.

Adult vaccines

The risk of HPV infection declines after roughly age 40, but it doesn’t fall to zero. Australia recommends the vaccine for everyone up to age 45. According to Dr. Jen Gunter, those who would most benefit from having an adult HPV shot would be women over the age of 26 who have never had an abnormal Pap smear, have no history of Chlamydia, and have had less than three-lifetime sex partners.

There are many vacccines for adults. You get Diphtheria and tetanus every 10 years, shingles at age 60, flu every year, pertussis if pregnant, and pneumococcal at age 65. Then, of course, there are those specific to travelling as well as hepatitis A and B if you’ve never had them.

Shingles vaccine

You can only contract shingles if you’ve had chickenpox, as shingles occur with a reactivation of the chickenpox virus which had been lying dormant, sleeping quietly, in nerve cells. Shingles can be an incredibly painful disease which depending on which nerve is involved and can at times leads to permanent chronic pain and other disabilities.

The other thing worth knowing is that if you’re over age 40, whether you remember having it or not, the likelihood is that you did have chickenpox. As to why cases are increasing, it might be because of the success of the chickenpox vaccine in kids. Before that successful vaccine, adults were regularly exposed to the chickenpox virus. In turn, this might have helped to boost the immunity of those who had already been exposed and in turn, make it less likely for them to develop shingles.

Flu shot

Flu vaccines aren’t 100% effective. Current flu vaccines contain the best guesses of the World Health Organization and the CDC as to which strains of flu will be most active the next year and given there are more than 3 strains of flu and that sometimes the World Health Organization’s predictions are wrong, efficacy varies.

That said, even in years when the strains in the flu vaccine don’t match those in the environment, the vaccine offers some protection. Some of the benefits of the flu vaccination beyond protecting yourself, you’re also protecting those with suppressed immune systems which include the very young, the very old, and those whose immune systems are medically compromised. To put some numbers as to why that matters, last year it’s estimated that nearly 81,000 people died in North America consequent to the flu.

Pneumonia shot

There certainly are shots for pneumonia, and the most benefit the very young and very old which is why it’s part of the vaccination schedule, albeit with different vaccines, for infants and at age 65. Though people often are fairly lackadaisical about pneumonia, it’s a very dangerous condition and between 5 and 10 percent of patients requiring hospitalization for pneumonia die as a consequence of it.

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