Summertime: The Perfect Time to Vaccinate

05/25/2015 04:22 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2016

It's schoolchildren's favorite time of the year -- when they don't have to go to school and can just enjoy being children. As summer vacation begins, many kids will be off to camp; others will join their parents on vacation. Both are great reasons to make sure everyone's, parents and kids, vaccinations are up to date. It's the perfect time to vaccinate!

Vaccinations can help protect and keep the entire family healthy while enjoying summer.

How vaccines work: Turning foe into friend

The concept of vaccines, which ultimately is the concept of providing "information" to our immune system in order to "educate" it and thereby protect us, is brilliant!

Our bodies encounter billions of different foreign agents from the moment we are born. From each encounter our body's immune system has to determine what to do about it. It has to decide if what it has encountered is a "friend" or "foe" or "not important."

We each have daily encounters with millions of foreign substances. When we give a vaccine, we present to our immune system one more (sometimes two or three if it's a compound vaccine) of those daily encounters -- just a tiny drop compared to an ocean of pathogens. This is a special encounter because the vaccine contains features of an evil germ (foe) but is carried by a friendly germ. It sounds like the old wolf in sheep's clothing, but this wolf has no teeth.

The agent in the vaccine is harmless or as near to harmless as possible. This is accomplished by using a virus or bacterium that is either dead, severely incapacitated, or a grafted piece of the germ carried on a benign agent. The idea is for our bodies to see just enough of the "foe" to produce the needed memory cells and molecules to protect us from the "foe" in the future. We call this protection -- immunity; which is why vaccines are sometimes called immunizations.

Science and medicine are getting better and better at finding just the right version of the "foe" to present to our immune system. We have also found safer adjuvants (other stuff in the vaccine that help our immune system know what to do) and safer more effective ways to produce the vaccine (such as tissue culture instead of growing the agent on eggs). As a result, in the last 20-30 years vaccines have become ever safer and more effective.

Ironically, and in part because of our success with vaccines in reducing the threats of death and long-term disabilities from diseases like measles and polio, many people have forgotten the dangers posed by those diseases and instead worry about possible dangers from the vaccines!

Worse are the unscrupulous individuals who have cried wolf, publishing false data that has worried parents about non-existent risks from vaccines, such as the absurd and multiple-times-disproven claim that vaccines cause autism.

It dismays me that vaccines -- which have produced far more benefit even than antimicrobials, prolonged and improved lives in ways that vastly improved human health in the 20th and early 21st century, and are part of the solution to the new threat of antimicrobial resistance -- are maligned in the media and remain so poorly understood.

Have you heard of herd immunity?

Vaccines protect not only the person vaccinated; the more members of a human herd who are vaccinated against a particular disease, the less chance of an outbreak. When we protect ourselves, we are also protecting our neighbors, we decrease the overall cost of health care, and we improve the economic and social health of our society.

Also, remember the old proved, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime"? Well, when we use an antibiotic to treat a bacterial infection that is the equivalent of "giving a man a fish" while providing our bodies with a vaccine which "educates our immune system" is similar to "teaching someone to fish." An antimicrobial helps you during an infection, but a vaccine helps you anytime you encounter that infection because it has educated your immune system.

Prevention is not only the least expensive form of medicine and the healthiest, it is also the friendliest and most neighborly.

Be a good neighbor and enjoy your summer -- get vaccinated.