Past Health Articles
A SHOT IN THE ARM
Your best defense against disease may be at the point of a
needle. Here's what vaccination can do for you
All your hard work and sacrifice have paid off. Your body is
a lean, hard, efficient machine that can lift more, run farther, and last longer when it
really counts. In fact, you're just about invincible. Until flu season, that is.
Sometimes, your body can't go it alone, especially when it
comes to fending off diseases. It needs a little boost--an immunity boost, to be exact.
That's why vaccines were invented: To keep your efficient machine from crashing every time
it runs into a rogue microbe.
A vaccination puts a weakened or inactivated virus or
bacteria directly into your bloodstream, spurring your body to produce antibodies--its
main disease-fighters--without giving you the disease. When an active bug strikes, the
antibodies will crush it. "Vaccines are the most direct defense you can give your
body against some diseases," explains Raymond Strikas, M.D., medical epidemiologist
with the National Immunization Program of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
When you were a kid, your mother probably made sure you were
up on all your shots. But now that you're in charge of your own health,
here are the vaccines to consider.
Should you be vaccinated? Probably.
Each year, the flu strikes up to one-fifth of the American
population, which means that as many as 40 million of us will suffer chills, fever, nausea
and congestion. Twenty thousand people--mostly the very old and the very young--will die
from it. Granted, most of us will just suffer in bed for a while, but the time we miss
from work will cost American businesses billions of dollars. And there are the untold
costs of watching daytime TV. So why catch it if you don't have to?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends
flu shots for the 65-and-over crowd, the chronically ill and their families, and health-care
professionals who are in close contact with those at risk. But even if you aren't in one
of these categories, you can probably benefit from the vaccine. A recent study of healthy,
working adults found that those who got flu shots missed nearly half as many work days due
to upper-respiratory illness as people who weren't vaccinated (and they had nearly half
the doctor's visits).
Because influenza is caused by several related, rapidly
mutating strains of the same virus--this year's models are A/Johannesburg, A/Texas and
B/Harbin--you need to be vaccinated each year.
However, if you're allergic to eggs, you shouldn't receive a
flu shot, since the vaccine itself is grown in egg-based cultures.
The vaccine sometimes causes minor swelling at the
vaccination site and fever even in people who don't have an egg allergy. (See page 90 for
news of a side effect- free vaccine.) The pain and discomfort, if any, are worth it. Flu
shots protect against illness from the virus in about 80 percent of those who get them.
Should you be vaccinated?
If you never had chicken pox as a kid, be aware that what
usually amounts to a week or so of discomfort for infants and toddlers can become a
serious illness if you contract it as an adult. And if you had chicken pox as a kid,
you're still not off the hook. That's because chicken pox has a nasty habit of revisiting
during the adult years as shingles, a painful skin disease marked by red, tender blisters
that usually form on the arms, shoulders and torso.
After you recover from your childhood case of chicken pox,
the virus can hide out in nerve endings, waiting for the immunity you built up to dip
because of time or illness. Then it erupts as shingles blisters.
It takes days for the blisters to go away; even then, they
can leave behind highly sensitive scars.
A relatively new complication of chicken pox and shingles is
the risk of secondary infection with streptococcus bacteria. Some newly discovered
streptococcus strains can kill in a matter of days. They can also be highly resistant to
antibiotics, and they often enter the body through chicken pox or shingles lesions. Dr.
Strikas recommends checking with your family doctor to see if there's any concern about
these streptococcal infections in your area. If there is, immunization against chicken pox
may be of an even higher priority.
The chicken pox/shingles vaccine is relatively new. It was
approved by the FDA last year after studies demonstrated that as many as 85 percent of
those who got the shot showed significant increase in immunity against the virus.
Protection for adults lasts for at least four years.
If the kids in your household have never had chicken pox or
been vaccinated, or you work around a lot of children, line up for your shots now, because
if your child comes down with chicken pox, you're the next prime target. Adults need two
shots given about a month apart. And if you have any illness that compromises your
immunity, ask your doctor if you're a candidate for vaccination.
As for shingles, the medical community is still debating
whether re- exposure to chicken pox plays a role in shingles outbreaks, but we say you're
better safe than spotty.
Should you be vaccinated? Probably not, unless you're 65 or
older or have chronic health problems.
Pneumonia takes an estimated 40,000 lives each year, yet few
people know there's a vaccine that may prevent 60 to 70 percent of these deaths. And
studies show that only one in five of the people at highest risk for pneumococcal
(bacterial) pneumonia have ever been vaccinated against it. The pneumonia vaccine protects
against 23 different strains of bacteria that cause pneumonia, including several of those
antibiotic- resistant varieties you've read so much about lately.
"Since some strains of bacterial pneumonia are proving
to be more and more difficult to treat with conventional medications, immunization is
gaining a lot more attention," notes Dr. Strikas. "Obviously, if you can prevent
the disease, you don't have to worry about what to use to treat it." He also points
out that the several seconds you devote to getting your shot will pay off with years of
You should definitely have the vaccine if you're age 65 or
older; younger men should consider it if they have a history of respiratory illness,
heart, lung or kidney disease, or diabetes. Also, it's recommended if you have
immune-system problems stemming from disease or medication. And bear in mind that although
shots are up to 60 percent effective in preventing bacterial pneumonia, they won't protect
you against the less common (and less serious) pneumonia caused by viruses. But as Joseph
F. Plouffe, M.D., professor of internal medicine at Ohio State University, points out,
"Pneumococcal pneumonia is the most common pneumonia we see. If we can prevent just
60 percent of these cases, we will have prevented a huge number of deaths."
Should you be vaccinated?
If you've ever vacationed in a strange country, taken a sip
of the local water and come down with Montezuma's revenge, consider yourself lucky. You
could have come down with hepatitis A. Hep A targets the liver, producing debilitating
symptoms, jaundice and, in rare cases, liver failure. It's most common in Mexico, the
Caribbean, South and Central America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean basin, the
Middle East and Asia (except Japan).
If you're headed to a hepatitis-prone destination, you can
protect yourself by avoiding the drinking water. That includes ice cubes, any cold drink
that may be made with water, and any food rinsed in the water. Brushing your teeth with
the local brew is a bad idea, too, as is eating native shellfish. "They filter a huge
amount of water and they concentrate the virus," explains Raymond S. Koff, M.D.,
chairman of the department of medicine and chief of the hepatology section at Metro West
Medical Center in Framingham, Massachusetts.
But now there's a better way of protecting yourself than
avoiding all things aqueous and shunning seafood on that Caribbean vacation. The hepatitis
A vaccine, just approved by the FDA last year, offers an estimated 96 percent protection
against the virus. The CDC recommends Hep A vaccines for sexually active gay men and
anyone traveling to a Hep A hot spot.
Should you be vaccinated?
Each day, as many as 14 Americans die from illnesses related
to the hepatitis B virus, which infects 200,000 to 300,000 people each year. In up to 40
percent of these new cases, the patient won't even know how he or she contracted the
disease. But doctors have learned a lot about this particularly nasty member of the
Like hepatitis A, Hep B also targets the liver. But Hep B is
far more aggressive. It's the leading cause of liver cancer worldwide, and it's 100 times
more contagious than HIV. Many people with Hep B will develop a full menu of
symptoms--fever, nausea, vomiting, jaundice, skin rash and arthritis--that can lead to
death. Others will have no symptoms at all.
These "carriers" can spread the disease and not
even know it. Currently, there are an estimated 1.2 million carriers in this country
The Hep B vaccine involves a series of three shots given
during a six-month period, but it provides lifetime protection, so you won' t need any
boosters. And the vaccine is the only real way to protect yourself against the virus. Need
we say more?
Should you be vaccinated?
Widespread regular vaccinations have helped nearly eradicate
smallpox, polio and measles. But tetanus will always be with us, since the bacteria can
flourish just about anywhere. It likes dirt, which explains why Mom rushed you to the
doctor for a tetanus shot that time you stepped, barefoot, on a rusty nail. Despite its
reputation, the tetanus bacteria doesn't need dirt--in fact, it's quite happy hanging out
on an apparently clean surface. If you get a cut, scratch or scrape, you're primed for
tetanus to take hold. The result: a gradual, painful stiffening of all the muscles in the
body. Left untreated, this stiffening progresses to those muscles that control breathing.
And you die.
Since the tetanus bacteria is so virulent and can enter the
body through breaks in the skin so tiny you can't even see them, you should be faithful
about getting regular booster shots. You probably had a series of three tetanus shots
during your childhood years, but to sustain peak immunity, you should have a booster every
10 years. If you've lapsed and find yourself in one of those rusty-nail situations, go to
the doctor as soon as possible. The tetanus vaccine works quickly, so once it enters your
body, it should bolster your immune system faster than the bacteria can take hold.
When you receive your tetanus shot, you'll get a free bonus.
Tetanus vaccine is usually combined with the diphtheria vaccine, so you'll automatically
be protected against that, too. If you haven't heard much about diphtheria lately, our
point is proven. It's one of those diseases made rare by the advent of vaccination.
Here's a roundup of experimental vaccines that may be coming
soon to a doctor's office near you
Scientists at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in
Washington, D.C., have discovered that most people have antibodies that help wipe out
cholesterol before it clogs their arteries. The researchers injected rabbits with these
"anticholesterol antibodies" and found that their cholesterol stayed low even
when placed on a diet that produced high cholesterol in other, unvaccinated rabbits.
EntreMed Corporation, a biopharmaceutical company in Rockville, Maryland, is currently at
work on a human vaccine, which could be used on individuals whose high or borderline
cholesterol levels didn't respond to low-fat diets.
This sexually transmitted disease affects as many as one in
five people in North America. Early clinical trials on a genital herpes vaccine show that
the shot appears to be well-tolerated by patients and promotes the development of
antibodies to the virus. Final-stage clinical trials are in progress that will test
whether the vaccine can protect individuals against getting herpes from a partner. If
these trials are successful, the vaccine may be on the market in five years.
For years, staying out of the woods was your best protection
against this fatigue-producing disease, spread mainly by deer ticks that carry the Lyme
bacterium. Then researchers discovered a process to reproduce a protein from the bacterium
that, when injected into volunteers, increased their immunity to the disease, while
producing no major side effects. The vaccine is in its final phase of testing, and results
are expected soon. Researchers believe the vaccine itself will be available within the
next several years.
The most prevalent deadly form of skin cancer, melanoma
strikes nearly 19,000 American men each year (4,500 will die). Overexposure to sunlight is
the biggest risk factor. Researchers at the New York University School of Medicine are
working on a vaccine that could be used to prevent melanoma or its recurrence in high-risk
individuals such as fair-skinned people or those who work outdoors a lot. The vaccine
works by stimulating immune cells to recognize and destroy abnormal cancer cells, says
Jean-Claude Bystryn, M.D., who's doing the research at New York University's Kaplan
Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Testing a vaccine for the AIDS virus seems only a remote possibility for the near future, at least in the U.S. The National Institutes of Health recently vetoed funding to test the vaccine hopeful gp120, citing insufficient evidence that it had potential to ward off the virus. Proponents of gp120 are still seeking funding, and there is no other candidate as close to testing.
Copyright ã 1998, Rodale Press, Inc. Reprinted with permission from Men's Health Magazine.
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