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Childhood immunizations fight germs with precision

Childhood immunizations fight germs with precision

Anti-submarine warfare involves radar-equipped aircraft and underwater explosives. These “depth charges” could be dropped by ships and tuned to detonate at a precise depth that was known to have the best chances of taking out an enemy submarine. When these new technologies were introduced generations ago, there were naval commanders who kept using older, more natural, methods of combat – often with grim results.

Today we have safe, effective vaccines that prime the radar of our bodies’ immune systems to the exact frequency needed to identify invaders. Vaccines tell the immune system the best way to destroy these microbes.

The immune system can fight on its own, using old tried-and-true battle methods. It will take a minimum of two weeks to develop what is called “adaptive immunity” tailored to only a single intruder. Two weeks is a lot of time to do lasting damage to the person who is infected.

I often use this analogy with my patients when asked if natural immunity is better than “artificial” immunity from childhood immunizations. Both use the same immune system. Only vaccines have the “top secret” information on what to look out for and where to strike. Vaccines have made a huge difference in our modern way of life. Globalization and cheap access to world travel has made us more susceptible to communicable disease. Consider the current pandemic now reaching into every nook of human life.

I share no joy in the tears associated with giving children vaccines. I see the value of these prevention measures in the dramatic improvement in health that our great country has enjoyed from universal vaccine programs.

Estimates vary, but there are at least 120,000 microbe species on Earth that exist in the soil, on our skin, in our guts and in other animals. Of those, a shocking 1,400 microbes are known to cause disease in humans. Thankfully, we have figured out which ones are frequent offenders and often end up causing long-term problems or death in otherwise healthy people.

There are around 16 microbes that we recommend routine vaccination against. These vaccines must pass rigorous testing before they are even considered for use. They must be safe, effective at preventing disease and keep working for a long time. Cost is a major consideration. Routinely recommended vaccines must protect us against a disease we are likely to get. Smallpox vaccinations are no longer recommended because that deadly disease was eradicated in the 1970s thanks to worldwide vaccination efforts. Similarly, polio, measles, and rubella have been nearly eliminated in the United States, but persist in other countries.

Vaccines seem pretty great, but do we need them in the United States? Looking back in the history books from before vaccines, the number of hospitalizations related to these microbes fell by 92% thanks to vaccination efforts. That’s millions of Americans who never had to visit a hospital, miss work, birthdays or weddings because they had been vaccinated. Some of the newest vaccines can even prevent certain kinds of cancer.

In my journey to become a submariner with the U.S. Navy, immunizations were the first “intel” I was privileged to receive. The military does not take chances with non-immunized sailors because it’s hard to operate a sneaky submarine if you are sick with a preventable illness.

Sam Matz, M.D., is a family physician at RiverStone Health Clinic. He can be reached at 406-247-3306.


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