Vaccine breakthroughs

The science of vaccination tends to be a slow and methodical one, with doctors meticulously testing, researching and plotting the eradication of dangerous diseases.

But the past few years have yielded remarkable advances in the field of immunology, work that will improve health and safety by leaps and bounds, experts say.

These improvements should be welcome news to parents as children return to school. And doctors also reiterate to parents the importance of having their children immunised to prevent and ultimately eradicate some of mankind's most deadly infectious diseases.

When children miss their immunisation schedule, most can't catch up and are vulnerable to vaccine-preventable diseases, such as whooping cough, hepatitis, or meningitis and influenza.

Four new vaccines
"Four new vaccines will be available and recommended for use by the end of the year," said Dr Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Offit explained that the vaccines target a wide range of diseases; meningitis, rotavirus, human papilloma virus and shingles. "Together, they could save thousands of lives, both young and not-so-young, each year," Offit said.

"This is a banner year," Offit said. "I don't think we're going to see another new vaccine for 10 years. I just think this has been an amazing year."

Other advances include tweaks to the immunisation schedule for the diphtheria/tetanus/pertussis vaccine and flu vaccine, "changes designed to tackle the continued spread of whooping cough and influenza," said Dr Louis Z. Cooper, professor of pediatrics at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons, and a past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Safe and effective
"The vaccines are so remarkably safe and so remarkably effective that I, as a parent and a grandparent and a pediatrician, strongly urge parents to get all of them, and get them on time," Cooper said.

"The new meningitis vaccine in particular has the potential to prevent hundreds of gruesome deaths and thousands of life-altering illnesses," Offit said.

"This is a vaccine that will prevent a bacteria that creates both bloodstream infections and meningitis in about 3 000 people a year, most of them children, and 300 deaths a year," Offit said.

Meningococcal disease is caused by Neisseria meningitidis, a common bacterium that invades the body to infect the lining of the brain or the bloodstream. "Even when the disease isn't fatal, it can cause lifetime brain damage, hearing loss, loss of limbs, or kidney failure," Offit said.

The CDC recommends that all students entering middle school and high school and all University first-years living in dormitories receive the new meningococcal vaccine.

New vaccines treat or prevent:

  • Rotavirus, a germ that causes severe diarrhea in children, usually with fever and vomiting. "It's a very common cause of doctor visits and hospital visits in young children," Offit said.
  • Human papilloma virus, a leading cause of cervical cancer and genital warts. "There are more than 10 000 new cases of cervical cancer each year," Offit said. "This will prevent about 70% of the strains that cause cervical cancer," he added.
  • Shingles, an outbreak of rash or blisters on the skin that is caused by the same virus that causes chicken pox. "It's for people over 60 years of age, and it will reduce their chances of getting shingles by at least 50%," Offit said.

Vaccine improvements
Doctors also are improving the immunisation schedules of already-developed vaccines, in response to surges in certain diseases.

For example, a booster dose of an improved tetanus-diphtheria-pertussis vaccine is now recommended for teens and adults every 10 years. This is to better prevent pertussis, or whooping cough, which has been on the rise since the 1980s and can be fatal to children.

"We've recognised that we're seeing a gradual increase of whooping cough in the US, and realised this reflects the gradual waning of vaccinations given years before," Cooper said.

"Another vaccination schedule advance involves the expansion of the age range for children receiving influenza immunisation," Cooper said.

"Until recently, flu vaccination had been recommended for children between 6 months old and 2 years old. Now, doctors are recommending that children as old as 5 years of age get vaccinated for the flu, along with their parents and caretakers," Cooper said.

"This is in recognition that not only do young kids get influenza, but that they are important in its spread," he said. - (HealthDayNews, August 2006)

Read more:
An obesity vaccine in the making
When should you get a tetanus shot?

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