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HEALTH CONNECTION

Immunization Week takes a shot at disease

By David Chilton
Special to the Toronto Sun


The flu season is a damp, miserable memory. On south-facing lawns, carpets of trilliums are welcoming spring. Newspaper travel sections are growing fat with ads for trips to Europe, cruises to Alaska or treks in the Costa Rican rain forest.


This is no time to think of germs and bugs and viruses. But it is; April 25 to May 1 is National Immunization Awareness Week in Canada.

Getting the appropriate shots for yourself and your children -- and keeping them up to date -- is one the best health-related investments you'll ever make. This year, incidentally, is also the 50th anniversary of Jonas Salk's polio vaccine.

Mary Appleton, senior manager for the Canadian Coalition for Immunization Awareness and Promotion in Ottawa, says for immunization to work it needs high compliance rates of 90% or more. But, she points out, parents don't always keep their children's vaccinations up to date.

"(Canada's) done such a good job of eliminating these diseases parents aren't frightened of them," Appleton says.

On the other hand, compliance rates are very good among seniors, she says, especially when it comes to a common -- and potentially fatal -- disease such as influenza. This winter the infection killed more than 20 people in Toronto.

Dr. Michael Finkelstein, associate medical officer of health for Toronto Public Health, says vaccination isn't compulsory for children or adults, but the city goes to great lengths to provide immunization. Every year nurses go to schools and -- with parents' or guardians' permission -- vaccinate Grade 7 students against Hepatitis B, a serious disease that attacks the liver and which can be transmitted sexually.

During the flu season, which in Toronto runs from about October to May, Toronto Public Health runs flu vaccination clinics in shopping malls and other public spaces and special programs such as those combating meningococcal C infection, which can affect the lining of the brain or cause septicemia (blood infection).

Dr. Allison McGeer, director of infection control at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, says until recently society has been so focused on children's immunization that adults have been sidelined a bit.

Adults need boosters

At least once in a lifetime an adult should have a diphtheria-tetanus-whooping cough booster, she says. She also recommends flu shots for parents and children, and vaccinations against Hepatitis B, chicken pox -- "a truly miserable disease if you get it as an adult" -- and a jab against pneumonia if you're an older adult or suffer from an underlying illness. Health care workers' vaccinations should always be up to date as a matter of course, McGeer cautions.

She also has some advice for those doing some travelling this year, especially if it's to the developing countries. A family doctor is a good place to start, but for anyone going off the beaten track a travel clinic is also a sensible choice, McGeer says. That beaten track, incidentally, need not be beyond Canadian borders: bison herds carry anthrax, she points out to would-be Buffalo Bills and Calamity Janes.

Dr. Lee Ford-Jones, a pediatrician at Sick Kids, an infectious disease specialist and professor of pediatrics at U of T, says vaccination doesn't mean diseases have disappeared, they've just become invisible.

Just recently, Ford-Jones says she's been aware of children born with complications because their mothers were not vaccinated against German measles; a farm worker with tetanus; and all three kinds of meningitis, "which to a very large degree are vaccine preventable."

And for parents with questions, Ford-Jones recommends the website of the Canadian Pediatric Society -- www.cps.ca. Remember, she says, "Complacency is fatal."



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