Research repeatedly shows that vaccination prevents serious illness and early death. Immunization is one of the most effective public health measures adopted by governments all around the world. Since the introduction of vaccines, diseases like measles, mumps, rubella, polio, diphtheria, whooping cough, and meningitis have declined by over 95 per cent. Worldwide immunization, begun by the World Health Organization in 1967, eliminated the deadly disease of smallpox. Similarly polio, once quite common in North America, is seldom seen.
Most people handle immunizations quite well. The most common side effects are mild pain, swelling and redness at the injection site. Some people are tired, have a low fever or a headache. These symptoms usually last for one to two days. Placing a cool damp cloth over the injection site or taking acetaminophen can help. Severe allergic reactions to any vaccine are rare. No convincing evidence suggests an association between vaccines and autism or multiple sclerosis.
Human papillomavirus (HPV)
Cancer of the cervix and genital warts are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). This virus is spread through sexual activity. In 2006, the new vaccine Gardasil® was approved for use in Canada. It protects against the most common strains of HPV.
Gardasil® is most effective in girls before they become sexually active and are exposed to HPV. It is also worth giving to those who are sexually active, or have a history of genital warts or an abnormal pap smear, as it protects against other common strains. Gardasil® is given as a series of three shots at zero, two, and six months. You can get it privately from your family doctor, or through provincial vaccination programs offered in some school districts.
Before being used in Canada, the vaccine was tested to ensure its safety. A study of about 11,000 women who received it showed that injection site pain, redness, fever and headache were the most common side effects. The vaccine cannot cause cancer or infection because the HPV in it is not alive. It should not be given to those who have had a serious allergic reaction to yeast.
Seasonal influenza and H1N1 vaccines
Influenza (flu) is a virus that causes infections of the nose, throat, and lungs. H1N1 is a new type that can cause a more severe form of the flu, especially in pregnant women, teens and young children. Both seasonal flu and H1N1 vaccines were recommended for all adolescents in the 2009-2010 flu season.
Typically, the annual influenza vaccine is only given to adolescents at high risk. These teens have chronic heart and lung conditions, diabetes or defective immune (defence) systems. With the severity of H1N1 this year, most provinces offered immunization to everyone above the age of six months. (Those at high risk of developing H1N1 were immunized first, since the vaccine was initially in short supply.)
Fatigue, a low fever, muscle aches and pains, runny nose and injection site irritation are common side effects of the flu vaccines. These vaccines do not contain latex. Those with a serious allergy to eggs should not have these vaccines, as they are made in eggs. While there is no cost for the H1N1 vaccine, there may be a charge for the seasonal influenza vaccine.
Meningitis is an inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord. The meningitis vaccine was approved for use in Canada in 2006 for those between age two and 55. It protects against four out of five common strains of a bacterium that causes meningitis. Adolescents who have had their spleen removed, have sickle cell disease, have not been previously immunized against meningitis, or whose immune systems are not working properly should receive this vaccine. It is given as a single dose. In most provinces, there is a cost.
Studies involving many people have shown the safety of the vaccine Menactra®. The most common side effects included redness and irritation at the injection site, headache, and fatigue. Those who have had a severe allergic reaction to the diphtheria vaccine or to latex should not have this vaccine. A slight association may exist between this vaccine and a rare condition of the nervous system known as Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS). One case of GBS could result from every one million doses of vaccine given. In spite of this, any teen fitting the above criteria should receive it as the benefits outweigh the risks. Meningitis is a serious threat to health.
Diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis vaccine
Most children are immunized against these diseases. A single booster is needed between the ages of 14 and 16. This will protect against bacteria that cause tetanus (lockjaw), pertussis (whooping cough), and diphtheria (a severe respiratory infection).
Side effects of this vaccine are similar to those of others. Severe allergic reactions are rare, occurring in about one out of one million cases. It should not be given to those who have had a severe allergic reaction to the vaccine or latex, or developed nervous system problems within seven days of receiving the vaccine.
Hepatitis B vaccine
This vaccine provides protection against hepatitis B virus infection. This virus attacks the liver, causing permanent liver damage (cirrhosis) and liver cancer. The virus is passed from an infected person through contact with blood and body fluids. Intimate sexual contact, sharing objects contaminated with blood (like razors, toothbrushes, tattooing equipment or needles) and being bitten are all risks.
The hepatitis B vaccine is safe and well tolerated. There is no chance of getting sick from the vaccine since it is not live. Most side effects are mild. They include slight fever, redness, swelling or pain at the injection site, and tiredness. Those who have had a severe reaction to the vaccine or any of its parts should not receive it.
The vaccine is given as a series. Programs that deliver this vaccine vary among provinces, though most are free of charge to children in grades 5 and 6. Other groups considered at high risk of infection may receive the vaccine for free. Check with your public health department if you think you might belong to a high-risk group.
Adolescents planning an overseas trip may be eligible for other vaccinations. Contact your family doctor or local travel clinic at least three months before the trip. Travel clinics assess risk based on travel destination and possible exposures. They then recommend necessary immunizations to be completed in time for travel.
Since the creation of the smallpox vaccine in 1796, immunization has saved millions of lives from infection. Modern vaccines can protect teens and prevent serious or fatal illness.