IT is sometimes easy to forget we didn’t always have vaccines to protect us from devastating infections.
The history of polio in Canada underscores the point.
This viral infection, which attacks the brain and spinal cord, was a serious health threat for much of the last century, leaving thousands of Canadians paralyzed or dead. The single worst year on record for polio was 1953, with 9,000 reported cases and 500 deaths, according to the Canadian Public Health Association.
Fortunately, those numbers started to decline dramatically following the discovery of a vaccine for the disease in 1955. Today, polio and other infections, such as small pox, have been effectively eliminated or contained in this country, thanks to a variety of immunization programs.
In fact, infectious diseases now account for only about five per cent of all deaths in this country, according to Immunize Canada. As a result, it is often said that immunization programs have saved more lives in Canada over the past 50 years than any other medical intervention.
These facts are worth remembering as we get ready to mark National Immunization Awareness Week, which runs April 22-29.
Here at the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, we’re celebrating the success of immunization programs in preventing disease, and encouraging everyone to check to see if their vaccinations are up-to-date.
This is important because, despite our successes over the years, vaccine-preventable diseases such as mumps and chickenpox can and do still pop up from time to time.
The reasons for this are varied and complex. One factor is the increasing ease of travel across continents, which helps facilitate the spread of infections, particularly from parts of the world where immunization programs are less effective.
Another factor is that some Canadians choose not to immunize themselves or their children, making it easier for an infection to spread once it is here.
Indeed, it is important to recognize that when you get a vaccination, you are not only protecting yourself, you are also strengthening the so-called "herd immunity" that comes with high population immunization rates. This herd immunity can help reduce the risk of infection among the more vulnerable groups in society, including infants, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems or high-risk medical conditions.
In Canada, immunization programs begin at two months of age, when infants receive the five-in-one vaccine, which protects against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis (whooping cough), polio and Hib disease. They also receive the pneumococcal and rotavirus vaccines, which protect against pneumonia and diarrheal illness.
If you are an adult who is unsure if you or your children have received the vaccinations you need to stay healthy, you can always check.
The easiest thing to do is to ask your health-care provider. Or, you can call the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority’s immunization record line at 204-938-5347 to request an electronic immunization record, which will highlight missing vaccinations and give you dates when a missing routine vaccination is due. After obtaining your immunization record, it serves not only as your keepsake, but as an opportunity or reminder to talk to your health-care provider about immunizations.
There’s also the CANImmunize app for iPhones and iPads, which you can download and use to keep a record of your vaccinations. This is part of a national initiative to have everyone take a personal interest in their health. The free app gives you automatic reminders to schedule vaccinations based on your provincial schedule, and provides access to timely and trusted information about recommended vaccinations for children, adults and travellers.
The bottom line: vaccines are safe. So take the time to check your records and those of your children and loved ones. If you are missing shots or need a booster, speak to your health-care provider about catching up, especially if you are planning to travel to other countries or if you are planning to become pregnant.
Dr. Bunmi Fatoye is a medical officer of health with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.