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NHS HIGHLAND: It is time to take up vaccination offer

By Dr Tim Allison

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Covid vaccine is still important especially for the most vulnerable, older people and those with reduced immunity, says Dr Tim Allison.
Covid vaccine is still important especially for the most vulnerable, older people and those with reduced immunity, says Dr Tim Allison.

Whether young or old, vaccination is important. Over the centuries vaccines have been used to tackle more and more illnesses.

To begin with, vaccination was used against smallpox. Then Louis Pasteur developed a vaccine against rabies. Later vaccines were targeted against other diseases.

Initially vaccines were given to provide individual protection, while the population level of the diseases remained largely the same. Vaccine for rabies is still used in that way to protect people who may be bitten or have been bitten by potentially infected animals. However, most vaccines are used both to protect individuals and to reduce the amount of disease in the community.

When the level of vaccination in a population gets to a certain level it becomes unlikely that an infection will be able to spread, circumstances known as herd immunity. In fact, smallpox has been eliminated by vaccines working this way and by other controls.

For more than three years our focus has been on Covid vaccines. Without them we would have suffered far more and far longer from the virus.

Covid vaccine is still important especially for the most vulnerable, older people and those with reduced immunity. The vaccine offers protection to those individuals and the aim of the continuing programme of Covid vaccination is individual protection rather than herd immunity.

The winter vaccination programme is almost finished, but for those eligible it is still possible to get a Covid and an influenza vaccine. Later in the year there will be the spring programme which covers those at the highest risk of harm from Covid.

Vaccines for older and more vulnerable people also include those protecting against shingles and against pneumococcal disease. However, it is with childhood vaccination where we have seen some of the biggest longer-term changes in the health of the population.

Conditions such as whooping cough, polio and diphtheria used to be relatively common and caused a huge degree of suffering. Now it is exceptional to see a single case of these conditions and polio has come close to being eradicated from the world. Keeping rates high for vaccinations against these diseases is important both to maintain the herd immunity in the population and for individual protection in case someone encounters the disease.

Times when people mix with others can be a risk for infection, such as starting at school, college or university. The aim is to keep vaccination levels above the World Health Organization target of 95 per cent but over the past few years there has been both a national and local decline in coverage.

Measles is another infection that used to be common in childhood but since the development of a vaccine 50 years ago the potential harms from the virus have been dramatically reduced. Some outbreaks have been reported in parts of the UK and this emphasises the importance of vaccination both for herd immunity and for individual protection in the event of future contact with someone infected with the virus.

If we, or especially young people in our family, are not vaccinated, it is time to take up the offer.

Dr Tim Allison is NHS Highland’s director of public health and policy.

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