Unlike medications and treatments that help reduce symptoms or cure diseases after we contract them, immunizations (or vaccinations) prepare our bodies for defense against certain microorganisms before we ever encounter them. When foreign substances or toxins (antigens) invade our bodies and makes us sick, we respond by producing specific blood proteins (antibodies) dispatched to fight invaders. We continue to produce these antibodies, even after the antigen (which could be a bacterium, virus, or other foreign substance) is no longer a threat. This allows us to defend ourselves against that same antigen if it infects us again, and this is what we refer to as having immunity from that disease-producing microorganism.
Most vaccines target viruses. They contain either dead viruses or small amounts of living viruses that our bodies react to in the same way they would to an actual threat, by making antibodies to fight the virus, thus preparing our bodies to prevent that associated illness from occurring at all.
One of the simplest and easiest ways to prevent a number of harmful diseases is to follow the immunization schedule your doctor recommends for you and your children, particularly if you are travelling to a foreign country where diseases that we consider to be rare in Canada can be quite common.
Immunizations and the GI Tract
Preventing Liver Disease
While researchers have identified at least five hepatitis viruses that affect the liver, known as A, B, C, D, and E, they suspect there are others, yet to discover. Hepatitis viruses infect liver tissue, causing inflammation that can lead to many problems throughout the body. However, proper vaccination can easily and effectively prevent two of these viruses from infecting you.
Hepatitis A presents with flu-like symptoms, including fatigue, fever, abdominal pain, nausea, and loss of appetite. It spreads through contaminated food and water and is much more common in developing countries. Even though hepatitis A does not lead to chronic liver disease or permanent damage, it can continue to cause symptoms for months. It is best to avoid the disease since immunization is readily available. The vaccine for hepatitis A is highly recommended for those who are travelling abroad and is 85-90% effective when taken before any exposure to the virus.1
Hepatitis B spreads through blood and other bodily fluids and can be either acute or chronic. Symptoms of acute hepatitis B are short-lasting and include fatigue, loss of appetite, vomiting, body aches, and mild fever. Chronic hepatitis B can lead to cirrhosis (liver damage), which increases the risk of developing liver cancer. The hepatitis B vaccine has a success rate of 95-100% when taken before exposure to the virus, thus easily and safely preventing the dangerous complications of infection.2
Celiac Disease and IBD Patients May Need an Extra Shot
As we mentioned in the Inside Tract® newsletter, Issue 179, individuals with celiac disease are less likely to respond effectively to the hepatitis B vaccine. New research shows that this is also true for individuals with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).3This means that a higher number of individuals who have IBD or celiac disease and receive the normal vaccination do not make adequate antibodies to protect themselves from infection, so they are still susceptible to contracting hepatitis B. However, doubling the dose can lead to a more effective outcome for these individuals. Talk to your physician if you are concerned about the effectiveness of any vaccinations you have received.
According to Health Canada, individuals using immunosuppressive medications, such as the steroids that doctors frequently prescribe to IBD patients, require a different schedule for immunizations. They should receive vaccinations at least two weeks before starting immunosuppressive therapy or at least three months after stopping immunosuppressive therapy.4
Individuals taking immunosuppressive medications should also avoid vaccines that contain any live viruses, because with a weakened immune system they might not be able to fight the virus off the way a healthy person would. Luckily, most vaccines use dead viruses. It is very important that immuno-compromised individuals receive vaccinations, since individuals with weakened immune systems are more susceptible to the diseases that vaccines prevent.
To Vaccinate or Not To Vaccinate – 5 Vaccination Myths Debunked
Many misconceptions about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines are floating around, causing much confusion. Some people believe that vaccines are useless or downright dangerous, and therefore refuse them for themselves and/or their children. Here is a list of 5 common myths about vaccines and the truth about these issues:
- MYTH: The MMR vaccine causes autism and IBD in children.
REALITY: As we covered in the Inside Tract® newsletter, issue 177, the scandalous ‘studies’ showing a correlation between the MMR vaccine and autism with IBD were fraudulent, and hold no truth. The MMR vaccine does not make children more likely to develop autism and IBD, but refusing to give your child the vaccine does make them more likely to get measles, mumps, or rubella and to expose other unvaccinated individuals to these potentially lethal viruses.
- MYTH: Vaccines are not useful because the diseases they prevent are so rare.
REALITY: The reason the diseases we vaccinate against are becoming so rare is that immunization is so widespread. When people decline the vaccine, they increase their chance of catching one of these preventable illnesses. For instance, when parents thought that giving their children the MMR vaccine was dangerous in the late 1990s, the incidence of measles increased. Even if you think the incidence of diseases is low in Canada, people travel to other places in the world where these diseases are more common, bringing them back as unexpected souvenirs.
- MYTH: Some vaccines contain mercury, so it isn’t safe for children to receive them.
REALITY: Some vaccines contain an ingredient called thimerosal to prevent the growth of any potential pathogens. Thimerosal, while rarely used, contains a form of mercury. However, the amount of thimerosal used in vaccines is very small and it is in a form that is easily passed from the body and considerably safer than the mercury found in seafood.5 The influenza vaccine and most hepatitis B vaccines are multi-dose vaccines, which contain thimerosal as a preservative. For immunization of infants against hepatitis B, parents or guardians in some provinces and territories have the choice of a thimerosal-free vaccine.6
- MYTH: The potential side effects of vaccines make them too dangerous to be useful.
REALITY: Serious side effects from vaccines are extremely rare, so rare that it is hard to assess if any serious health issues individuals develop around the time of the injection are related to it or something else. The most common side effects are redness at the injection site, a sore arm, and a mild fever – much less of a concern than developing one of the diseases that vaccines prevent.7
- MYTH: The hepatitis B vaccine causes multiple sclerosis (MS) and other health problems.
REALITY: If this were true, there would be a huge increase of MS in the population correlating with the prevalence of the hepatitis B vaccine, which there is not. Only around 1 in 600,000 individuals who receive the vaccine experience anaphylaxis (an extreme allergic reaction), and it has not caused death. However, this vaccine does prevent thousands of unnecessary deaths every year.8
Vaccines are extremely valuable tools in preventing serious illnesses, and the pros greatly outweigh the cons. If you have a GI disease, or are receiving immunosuppressive therapy, it is important for you to talk to your physician about ensuring that you take the extra steps to make sure your vaccine schedule is effective.