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She’s immune

 Women can benefit from certain vaccinations that protect them from diseases unique to them.

IT is hard to imagine that there was a time when vaccination was rare, and even laughable. Back in the 1700s, Edward Jenner and his ethically-risky experiment of infecting a young boy with cowpox, followed by smallpox, proved that introducing a weakened disease-causing organism into the body stimulates the body’s immune system to mount a defense against subsequent infections by that organism.

Although Dr Jenner’s findings were initially rejected by the scientific community of his time, the practice of vaccination eventually became commonplace. Today, children start receiving their first vaccination within days of birth, and many more before they reach their first birthday.

You have immunity

Vaccines are probably one of the greatest scientific inventions of all time, especially in public health terms, as vaccination has saved the lives of millions of people. Thanks to the widespread use of vaccines in modern times, we have seen many infectious diseases, which were once common childhood diseases, become nearly eradicated or largely reduced.

Vaccination does not only prevent disease in an individual, but also in entire communities. The more people in a community who are vaccinated against a disease, the less likely that the disease will surface in that community. This “herd immunity” occurs because there are fewer unvaccinated people to be infected by the disease and to spread it to another unvaccinated person.

Many people think that only children need vaccinations. However, certain immunisations require booster shots as we get older, and even as adults, we can avail ourselves of new vaccinations that are now available. This is especially true for women, who can benefit from certain vaccinations that protect them from diseases unique to women. In this article, I will describe these vaccines and why they are important.

Vaccines for women

Thanks to recent advances in vaccine development, there have been several new vaccines that are particularly relevant for women and girls. The first is the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, which protects against several HPV types, including HPV 6, 11, 16 and 18. These four types of HPV are known to cause most cases of cervical cancer and genital warts.

Cervical cancer is a disease in which cancer cells are found in the tissues of the cervix (the lower part of the uterus that connects the uterus to the vagina). However, the disease is largely preventable, with the use of regular Pap smears, and now the HPV vaccine. The HPV vaccine is most effective when it is given before any exposure to HPV – namely, before a girl or woman becomes sexually active.

Another new vaccine is the adult and adolescent tetanus-diphtheria-acellular pertussis (Tdap) vaccine, which is given to women planning to become pregnant and new mothers, to prevent tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis in babies who are too young to be vaccinated themselves.

Rubella, chickenpox and influenza vaccinations are also particularly beneficial for women who are planning to become pregnant. Before you conceive, you should test for immunity against diseases and get the shots at least a month before you try to become pregnant.

For women who are already pregnant, they cannot receive the rubella and chickenpox vaccines. However, pregnant women can be given the inactivated influenza vaccine, to protect themselves and their unborn babies from the risk of developing serious flu-related complications.

Elderly women should also be given special consideration for vaccinations, particularly pneumococcal and influenza vaccinations, as they are at higher risk of developing complications from these diseases.

Whose responsibility?

Obstetricians and gynaecologists are many women’s best friends. We are their most frequent point of healthcare contact and we know their medical history intimately. When women put their health into our hands, they trust us unreservedly to help them make the best decisions in order to keep them and their families healthy.

Therefore, it is our responsibility to advise women about important and suitable vaccines that can protect them and their children from preventable diseases. As a woman, you should be proactive in seeking medical advice from your gynaecologist or your family doctor about what vaccines you may need.

If you have adolescent daughters, you should also make it a practice to schedule regular gynaecological checkups for them, so that they become aware and comfortable with their body and their sexual health. At this age, they will also benefit from certain vaccinations, such as HPV vaccination.

More than two centuries ago, a little boy in England was subjected to a risky experiment that eventually gave the world the answer to preventing infectious diseases. Let’s not forget the risk he took and appreciate what vaccinations can do for us.

The Star Newspaper, Sunday October 10, 2010

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