Are vaccines forever?

Why you still probably won’t get measles in Australia

There are thousands of tiny ironies in life. You pay extra for your coffee using your card even though you know there’s a few dollars hiding in your bag somewhere. You lose your keys again even though you’ve spent hours on the internet learning strategies to keep them un-lost.

This is the story of one of the little ironies that life had in store for me.

Guess what, it’s about health. Who would have guessed?

The story starts in a place at once filled with wonder, joy, and sterility; the local GPs office. I’m extremely annoyed, and pretty pissed off at my mother, not least because nappies were just so last year.

I’ve just had a round of infant vaccinations.

Picturing this all years later, I can just imagine the look of shocked affront on my chubby face, followed by the inevitable screeching that accompanies the indignity of a needle. Vaccinations are rarely fun for babies or mothers, because who wants to put their child through pain?

But at least everything is alright afterwards, because now they’ll never get that nasty disease that the doctor is worried about.

Right?

Disease Immunity

Vaccines are wonderful things. Think of them as a drill sergeant; they train your defensive cells to recognize invaders so that when the bastards break through your body’s defenses they can make a valiant stand against the foreign invader.

Like this, but smaller

These sergeants are basically the reformed enemy; most vaccines are made up of germ cells that have been modified in some way so that the body can recognize them without them actually causing an infection. This is why you often get a bit of a reaction around the injection site and sometimes a temperature; your body is reacting as if you were infected, and digging in to defeat the dastardly antagonist.

But this comes at a cost. When you get vaccinated, you don’t actually contract the disease in question, and so your body doesn’t always learn the perfect method of repulsing it. This can cause the vaccine to fail, meaning that people who have been vaccinated (rarely) catch the disease anyway. It’s one reason why herd immunity is so very important.

So what does this have to do with infant Gid?

Well, I was one of those people.

Coughing For Days

About ten years after being jabbed in the arm by the (I assume) mean doctor, I was sitting in a history class. Young Gid was even then a total nerd, and I was loving every second of it.

Except that I couldn’t stop coughing.

Eventually, this caused my classmate to look at me and ask “can’t you just stop?”. You see, I’d been coughing for weeks now. It started off as a bit of a tickle, and then a really painful lasting cough, and was just now dying down.

Turns out I had pertussis, or whooping cough.

This is a really nasty, dangerous disease when you catch it as an infant, but fortunately for me it’s not as big of a worry as an adolescent. Some people actually just ignore the cough, because they often don’t have other symptoms after the initial infection.

I love stock photos of sick people; they’re so realistic!

The problem is, I’d been given the vaccine for whooping cough as a baby. In fact, as per the immunization schedule for the UK, I should’ve received the vaccination 3 times.

So how did I get the disease?

Waning Immunity

I remember working in a respiratory clinic. One of the specialists had just seen a man with whooping cough who was recovering well, and in my ignorance I asked: “Does that mean he needs a vaccine now?”

The specialist responded: “No, no, there’s nothing like natural immunity”

When we make vaccines, we doctor and transform germs so that you can get the immunity without the horrible effects of actually having the disease. However, this process can leave you with an imperfect defense, particularly if you are a baby with a still-developing immune system.

This is why we have booster shots. Some vaccines’ immunity wanes over time, so every once in a while you need a booster to make sure your body is still up to scratch in the war against germs.

We all need boosters sometimes, even if you’re a tomato

My story is a perfect example; the whooping cough vaccine is known for providing immunity that wanes over the course of about 10 years (note; if you are reading this and are over 25, you probably need a booster. Check with your family doctor!).

So vaccine protection wanes.

But does it go away completely?

Lasting Protection

This brings us to the most fascinating fact of them all; if you’ve been vaccinated you are likely to be healthier even if you catch the disease.

It’s one of the coolest things about vaccinations.

Firstly, it’s important to remember that the vaccine provides complete protection for >90% of people who get it.

The even better news is that a study found that being vaccinated means that you are ~90% less likely to be hospitalized due to serious complications from whooping cough than someone who is unvaccinated. Even more amazing, you will be sick for a shorter amount of time and experience less severe symptoms.

Being vaccinated may not stop every invader that gets through your orifices, but it gives your body a huge advantage over any that do get through.

Don’t google the word orifice. Just don’t.

Fascinatingly, this is true regardless of how many times you received the vaccination. In the study, even those who received a single vaccination against whooping cough were better off than those who had not; they were less likely to develop pneumonia, have seizures, require antimicrobial therapy, and have severe illness even if they were not up-to-date.

Vaccines Are Forever

“So what does this mean”, you ask?

It means that vaccinations are forever regardless of whether they stop 100% of people getting the disease or not.

It means that you are protecting yourself (and your family) by getting a vaccination.

It means that you should go check with your family doctor whether you (or your kids) are due for any boosters.

Vaccines are amazing. They don’t work 100% of the time, because in medicine things rarely do. But even when they fail, they prevent the disease ravaging your body and leaving you with serious, and sometimes permanent, complications.