When we think of vaccines we generally think of babies or travelling and as a Practice Nurse this is a lot of my work when it comes to immunisations. Getting vaccinated however is an issue that affects an adult’s day-to-day life as well! What I have observed through my work is that some people are unaware that the vaccines we get as children can wear off and may require a booster during our lives. Today’s topic is all about knowing your immunity and finding out if there are any vaccines as an adult that you might be in need of.

Firstly I want to take a moment to discuss vaccines as a concept. I believe that vaccines are one of, if not the greatest invention in modern medicine (maybe tied with the discovery of penicillin!). Think about it; an intramuscular injection that generally involves only 0.5-1mL of fluid has helped to eradicate diseases, protect our vulnerable populations (such as the elderly and immune-compromised) and comes with virtually no side-effects! In Australia our wonderful and strict vaccination program in infants, starting from birth through to twelve years old, has helped to dramatically decrease the rates of certain diseases to near extinction. Only decades ago illnesses like Diphtheria and Polio posed a real threat to the general public, and recently with the introduction of the HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) vaccine in teenagers the rates of genital warts and cervical/ anal cancers are decreasing exponentially. 

Before I can explain why we may need vaccine boosters we need to understand how vaccines work. When we are vaccinated, or when we get an infection, our immune system builds antibodies. These antibodies are created specifically to recognise and fight-off the antigen, or illness, that created them. So when we get the measles vaccine, it’s as if we have had measles and our body has created the antibodies to fight off future infections. This is part of what makes vaccines so amazing; we can build this specific-defence without having to endure the illness which some people do not recover from. 

In the case of some infections and vaccines however, our immune system loses those antibodies over time. There’s no rhyme or reason to why this is, it comes down to individual immunity and genetics. Thankfully though we have something called ‘immune memory’, so when we get a booster vaccine our body is much more easily capable of re-building those antibodies than if we never got the vaccines in the first place. A colloquial way to think of this might be studying a language in high-school. Over time we are not as proficient as we used to be, however if we were to pick that textbook up again the nuances of the language will be much easier to re-learn than if we were starting from scratch. 

So why does it matter if we’re not vaccine-protected as adults? Firstly a lot of these childhood illnesses are much more serious in adulthood and can progress to conditions that leave lasting consequences or be potentially fatal. Beyond individual protection though, part of being vaccinated is about protecting our vulnerable populations. A healthy individual might bounce back from a measles infection, but an elderly person, an infant or someone who is immune-compromised (for example, someone on chemotherapy) may not recover. Being vaccinated is about more than being sensible, it’s a civil duty to ensure we have a healthy population and protect those less-able to protect themselves.

The reason I have chosen to address this topic is because we are seeing an increase in vaccine-preventable diseases across Sydney, and across Australia. The rates of whooping cough in children is going up which is directly linked to the rise in voluntary anti-vaccination. This is so serious that the NSW Government have introduced another whooping cough vaccine for children at 18 months of age. Beyond this, there have been several measles outbreaks in Sydney this year, including exposures at Sydney airport. 

Doctors are encouraged to get adult patients to do random vaccine checks, a blood test to check your vaccine status. Unfortunately it doesn’t happen as often as it should and from my experience a lot of people are unaware of this risk! The next time you’re at the GP I encourage you to ask for a blood test to check your vaccine immunity. Every practice is different however some practices offer free catch-up vaccines so if you do need any boosters this might be free of charge. Once you’ve had this blood test and any catch-up vaccines be sure to keep a really good record. Having this documented will ensure that you can save time, expense and valuable medical resources. 

Generally speaking vaccines provide very long, if not lifelong immunity, and most people will not need booster vaccines. If you do though, I promise that the 5 seconds of pain during the injection is better than actually acquiring the infection and you're doing your part to reduce the rates of these diseases and protect those who can’t fight off these illnesses themselves!

Thank you for taking the time to read this, and as always thank you for being a part of the Hot on Health movement to normalise healthcare and change the way health is perceived and discussed! 

And remember, “there is no healthcare without self-care.” 

References/ Suggested Reading:

AGDOH 2015, ‘The Australian Immunisation Handbook (10th Edition)’, Australian Government Department of Health, viewed 10 June 2016, <http://www.immunise.health.gov.au/internet/immunise/publishing.nsf/Content/7B28E87511E08905CA257D4D001DB1F8/$File/Aus-Imm-Handbook.pdf>.

AGDOH 2013, ‘Myths and Realities: Responding to arguments against vaccination’, Australian Government Department of Health, viewed 10 June 2016, <http://www.immunise.health.gov.au/internet/immunise/publishing.nsf/Content/13ACB374291E3532CA257D4D0081E4AA/$File/full-publication-myths-and-realities-5th-ed-2013.pdf>. 

NSW Health, 2016, ‘Adult Vaccination’, NSW Health, viewed 10 June 2016, <http://www.health.nsw.gov.au/immunisation/Pages/adult_vaccination.aspx>. 

NSW Health 2016, ‘NSW Health issues measles warning’, NSW Health, viewed 09 April 2016, <http://www.health.nsw.gov.au/news/Pages/20160406_00.aspx>.