The importance of vaccinations

It’s late fall and all the seasonal illnesses are making their rounds: colds, flu, COVID, Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) and other respiratory viruses and infections.

Unfortunately, modern medicine doesn’t have a preventative vaccine for everything that ails us, but it’s important we get the vaccines they do have.

New dominant strains of COVID mean it’s time for a booster shot, especially as cold weather forces us indoors. Flu shots are imperfect, but it never hurts to get one. And most pharmacies will let you get the COVID and flu vaccines in one shot (metaphorically, not literally).

Last year was particularly rough for RSV and this year is expected to follow suit, so it’s been recommended that all children under 8 months old get the single-dose vaccine. Both children under 19 months and adults over 60 at high risk for complications should also get the RSV vaccine. Complications, by the way, include bronchiolitis — the narrowing of small airways in the lungs due to swelling — and/or severe illness requiring hospitalization. (Or possibly death.)

Some people dismiss vaccines because they don’t guarantee you won’t get sick. But that’s not the point of a vaccine. A vaccine’s primary purpose is to build up your immunity so that if you do get a virus, your body is better prepared to fight it. This results in being less sick (and not dying).

When enough of the population has a strong immunity to a virus, that virus doesn’t spread as easily, and in some cases, stops spreading at all. That’s how, for years, the United States successfully stopped — in technical terms, eradicated — or minimized diseases like polio, mumps, rubella, measles, tetanus, diphtheria and smallpox/chickenpox for decades. The U.S. required all children to receive vaccinations for all of the above, and doing so over the years slowed the spread of those diseases until we very rarely encounter them. Some, we never see anymore, and if we do, it’s usually because an unvaccinated person acquired it while traveling abroad.

Or, that’s how it used to be. As the anti-vaccination movement has grown, we’ve seen more and more instances of home-grown outbreaks, particularly of measles, and even the presence of polio in New York last year.

Eradication requires strong community immunity. America’s collective immunity used to be like a medieval fortress: Towers and walls made of strong, heavy stone, with a few narrow openings, to protect against enemy arrows. (In this analogy, vaccinated people are the stones, viruses are the arrows and the narrow openings are people who can’t get vaccinated, for health or age reasons.) As more states relax vaccine requirements, especially for school-aged children, our wall of immunity increasingly looks like a chain-link fence.

West Virginia has historically had one of, if not the highest vaccination rates in the country, which has kept our kids safe from the illnesses that ravaged previous generations. But legislators are already signaling they plan to roll back vaccine requirements and set a much lower threshold for exemptions.

Doing so can only hurt our children and others in our community who aren’t healthy enough to fight off serious illnesses. Start telling lawmakers now to leave the state’s vaccine guidelines in place.