August is National Immunization Awareness Month (NIAM), which is marked to help raise awareness about the importance of vaccines in the protection of public health.
One of the themes of this year’s National Immunization Awareness Month is “vaccines work.” This has been a particularly important message during the pandemic amid some segments of the public questioning the safety and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines, and vaccines in general.
The current pandemic certainly did its part to highlight the critical role of vaccines in the fight against infectious diseases like COVID-19.
While this year’s National Immunization Awareness Month includes continuing to highlight the importance of COVID vaccines, which have been a big focus for the past two years, there is also a need to bring attention to other vaccinations, some of which have been lagging due to pandemic-related lockdowns.
As such, health agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have launched vaccination catch-up campaigns to help remind people to get routine vaccinations that they may have missed, or to prevent them from missing.
Vaccination Awareness from the FDA
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recognizes National Immunization Awareness Month as providing “an opportunity to think about how far the development and advancement of immunization science has come, and its impact on public health.”
The FDA “not only plays a key role in immunization by evaluating vaccines for safety and effectiveness before they are made available to the public,” but the federal regulator is also committed to boosting vaccine awareness.
The FDA has outlined key points to remember when it comes to immunizations. Among these is the fact that the “FDA authorizes or approves vaccines based on rigorous evaluation and analysis of data.” This is important for people to recognize and understand as the agency’s review of laboratory and clinical vaccine data is very robust to help ensure the safety, efficacy and manufacturing quality of any vaccine. No steps are skipped in the review process and trial data must demonstrate vaccine safety and efficacy for any kind of authorization or approval to be granted. And despite the rapid timeline of authorizations and approvals of the COVID-19 vaccines, they are perhaps the most heavily scrutinized vaccines in history with the world’s lens on them at all stages including their development, testing, authorization/approval and administration during the pandemic.
The FDA says it’s also important to remember that “COVID-19 vaccines and flu vaccines save lives.” With more than two years of data for the COVID-19 vaccines and countless years for the flu vaccines, both clinical and real-world data show how effective these vaccines are in preventing serious, life-threatening outcomes. COVID-19 vaccination reduces a person’s risk of dying by over 90 percent, a “remarkable effect,” says the FDA. The same goes for the influenza vaccine, which is highly effective in preventing many illnesses and deaths due to the influenza virus if administered annually on a routine basis.
The FDA also stresses to “be smart when considering your source of information.” A big part of COVID-19 vaccine awareness and messaging has been around ensuring people have access to correct, accurate information while combatting misinformation and disinformation.
Unfortunately, the FDA says the “constant stream of information, opinion and, too often, disinformation, has eroded trust in societal institutions, including the FDA — and, regrettably, in the science upon which our decisions are based. This is causing harm to patients and consumers.”
Therefore, people are encouraged to evaluate the sources of information that they encounter. The FDA says it is working to “promote reliable information and discredit misinformation or disinformation that is intentionally designed to harm people.” It encourages people to seek accurate information about vaccination from sources like the FDA, the CDC, local health authorities and trusted healthcare professionals.
Childhood vaccinations are important in the prevention of childhood illnesses. Children are particularly vulnerable to illnesses turning serious as their immune systems are still developing.
The CDC continues to emphasize the importance of routine childhood vaccinations, especially as kids have been heading back to school after pandemic lockdowns.
According to the health agency, national vaccination coverage of required vaccines among kindergarten children during the 2020 to 2021 school year fell by about one percent from the previous year. This may not sound significant, but it equates to 35,000 more children without vaccination documents says the CDC.
As such, the CDC has put out a call for action, outlining the steps that healthcare providers and families can take to encourage catch up vaccinations to protect children’s health. This includes ensuring healthcare providers make vaccines more accessible, reminding patients if they are due for immunizations at routine visits, notify families when immunizations are due, provide and share facts and make strong recommendations to immunize.
The CDC has also issued specific “Vaccine Catch-Up Guidance” to help healthcare providers determine a vaccine catch-up schedule for children and adolescents that includes specific vaccines and timelines.
Moreover, globally, we are seeing a resurgence of once vaccine-eradicated diseases like polio. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there is also the threat of smallpox making a reappearance.
The smallpox vaccine, which was the first successful vaccine to be developed by British physician and scientist Edward Jenner in 1796, is now in high demand, particularly for healthcare workers, due to the rising number of monkeypox cases around the world. Both the smallpox and monkeypox viruses are members of the Orthopoxvirus family, and according to WHO estimates, the smallpox vaccine is approximately 85 percent effective in protecting against infection from the monkeypox virus.
Smallpox was declared to be eradicated in 1980 by the WHO after the global health agency had initiated an intensive smallpox vaccination campaign in 1967. Smallpox was one of the most devastating diseases known to humanity, according to the WHO, having caused millions of deaths before it was finally wiped out. The eradication of smallpox “remains among the most notable and profound public health successes in history,” says the WHO.
And it isn’t only routine childhood vaccinations that are important. As individuals get older, it becomes just as critical for them to keep up with required vaccinations to help protect against illnesses that can become life threatening as the immune system becomes weaker with age.
It is recommended that adults 65 years of age and older receive vaccines against influenza annually, pneumococcus (or streptococcus pneumoniae, the bacteria that causes pneumonia) and shingles. It is especially important for seniors in long-term care settings to receive the flu shot, for example, as they are particularly vulnerable to complications from influenza, including severe illness and even death.
Other high-risk populations include pregnant women, immunocompromised individuals and people with chronic diseases who should keep up to date on all necessary vaccinations to protect against complications from pathogenic diseases.
Increasing Vaccination Awareness
The National Foundation of Infectious Diseases (NFID) has also outlined ways to increase awareness about immunization to help protect public health.
The foundation says it is important for people to carefully look into resources and obtain information from trusted, credible sources. It also has its own resources, such as graphics with ten reasons to get vaccinated, that it encourages people to read and share on social media.
There is also a that highlights the importance of vaccines for children.
Health agencies including the FDA also stress the importance of healthcare providers strongly recommending vaccines to their patients. Providers are the primary point of contact for patients, and it is critical for them to engage those in their care to help raise awareness about immunizations and ensure they are up to date on their vaccinations.
Immunization is the ultimate form of disease prevention. Authorized and approved vaccines undergo rigorous safety and efficacy analyses to make sure they are safe and that they work. Moreover, understanding that vaccination is an important part of a healthy life, just like a good diet, exercise and medications (if necessary), is key to helping people embrace and stay on top of their vaccinations.