Over the 30 years of my medical education and career, I can think of no greater healthcare accomplishment than childhood and adult vaccines.

While practicing and teaching primary care in my hometown community, I am grateful that I don’t have to relive the trauma I experienced during my early medical school and residency years when caring for critically sick children and adults who were at the mercy of vaccine-preventable illnesses.

Vaccines have long played a vital role in public health promotion, as National Immunization Awareness Month reminds us. As a healthcare provider, I recognize our profession’s crucial role in educating and elevating the vaccine conversation.

Held every August, National Immunization Awareness Month spotlights the critical importance of essential vaccinations to protect ourselves, as well as our families, friends, co-workers and all others we come into contact with, from a litany of harmful diseases. Of course, we immediately think of annual flu shots and now about COVID-19 vaccines. However, there are a number of other vaccines that help ensure the collective good health of our community, including diphtheria, polio, pertussis, measles, mumps, chickenpox and several forms of hepatitis, meningitis, pneumonia and human papilloma viruses.

Like so many other parts of life, COVID-19 has disrupted primary care visits and vaccination schedules for adults and children alike. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there was a 14% drop in vaccine orders in 2020-21 compared to 2019, while measles vaccine orders alone have decreased by more than 20%. These statistics are very important because it wasn’t too long ago that we witnessed national outbreaks of measles, which was a major cause of death and disability in the 1950s. Sadly, we are apt to forget the Silent Generation’s stories of devastating polio, measles and influenza epidemics to ensure history doesn’t repeat itself.

Unfortunately, we don’t celebrate the amazing cancer-preventing power of the Hepatitis B and Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccines frequently enough, especially with HPV tonsillar cancers in nonsmokers on the rise. As the CDC acknowledges such realities, we must heed their advice and “Catch Up to Get Ahead” as a country in terms of our overall vaccination rates.

Pregnant women, their families and close contacts should receive the flu and whooping cough vaccines to provide short-term protection to babies until the time comes for the child to be vaccinated themselves. It goes without saying that primary series vaccinations are extraordinarily important for our children. With students hopefully returning in large numbers to physical classrooms this fall, now is the time for parents to make sure their children are up to date on all of their recommended vaccines.

And vaccines don’t end at the conclusion of childhood. Adults should be vaccinated to protect themselves from, among other things, whooping cough, tetanus, flu, pneumonia and shingles. I advise you all to consult with your primary care physician to find out what vaccines are appropriate for your age, health conditions, job and/or lifestyle.

As we continue to focus in the months ahead on encouraging all eligible community members to receive their COVID-19 vaccinations, we should also be making a concerted effort to get as many people as possible vaccinated for the flu — the earlier the better. We here at The Wright Center will be providing flu vaccinations at all of our regional primary care practices as soon as they’re available. Our mobile unit, Driving Better Health, will also be very busy, offering vaccination clinics in school districts and community settings.

Vaccines are truly one of the true marvels of modern medicine. They are extremely safe, highly accessible and responsible for saving countless lives. I cannot stress their value enough for individual patients and our community. I encourage you all to take advantage of them for the good of your long-term health as well as the health and welfare of your most cherished family and friends.

Linda Thomas-Hemak, M.D., a primary care physician triple board-certified in pediatrics, internal medicine and addiction medicine, leads The Wright Center for Community Health and The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education as President and CEO. She lives with her family and practices and teaches primary care in Jermyn. Send your medical questions to news@thewrightcenter.org.

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