It's that time of year when kids all across the country head back to the hallowed halls of education to increase their knowledge. We are all familiar with the subjects: math, science, history, literature, and grammar. Teachers act as mental coaches to strengthen brain power and give children a chance to find a happy future.
There are additional lessons going on at school especially at this time of year. But the target isn't the brain, it's the immune system. Much like our capacity for knowledge, our internal defense forces are ready to gain information and store it as memory. The subjects are not abstract, though. They are microbiological.
Each time a child encounters one of a number of pathogens, such as the flu, bacterial foodborne illness, and some of the common cold viruses (but not rhinovirus), the immune system not only responds to fight, but also remembers the invader at the molecular level. Once memory is instilled, the person is protected for years against any re-infection.
Sometimes, that protection can last a lifetime. One of the best examples came during the 2009 influenza pandemic. People who were alive during the 1918 Spanish flu that killed millions of people. These survivors' immune systems still had memory against the new virus and could put up a fight against it.
There is a slight downside the story of the 1918 survivors. They required an actual infection to acquire memory. However, since those days, a different route of immune training has come about allowing us to keep our kids' immunity strong without all the symptoms or long-term consequences.
Like teachers in schools, who proffer academic information in a non-threatening way, vaccines offer a safe route to immunological memory. Thanks to these interventions, hundreds of millions of immune systems have been given the chance to learn about microbial invaders and eventually stop them before they can cause harm.
In Canada, there are several microbiological lessons for our childrens' immune systems. Many of these are akin to the three Rs of education and have become household names. Who hasn't heard of polio, MMR (measles, mumps, rubella), DPT (diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus), and of course, influenza?
There are also other vaccine options, much like electives in school. These target usually non-lethal infections such as Haemophilus influenza (Hib), Varicella (chicken pox), and HPV (human papillomavirus). Though these particular immune courses may not be necessary, most are definitely worth investigating if only to assess how they can prevent the associated illnesses.
For the most part, the implementation of a vaccine has come as a result of a historical need to save the majority of children. But one vaccine currently available is rooted in a more contemporary problem. It's called meningococcal meningitis although it's more commonly known in the public as bacterial meningitis.
In Canada, the disease was known as early as the 1970s but wasn't considered to be a major problem until the 1990s when a stronger strain emerged. The first province to act was Quebec. They had suffered tremendously and decided it was best to train the immune systems of the children than risk the consequences of higher infection rates and possible deaths.
By the turn of the Century, the meningococcal vaccine was approved for all of the Country and many provinces began to put in place publicly funded programs for children at risk. At the same time, in Ontario, a surveillance program was initiated to determine if the vaccine was in fact effective. Last month, the results of the study were released.
The researchers found the number of bacterial meningitis cases in Ontario was 161 cases between 2000 and 2013. This may seem extremely low in comparison to other pathogens. Yet, when one considers each of these children faced a life-or-death situation of which 27 did not survive, the toll becomes quite significant.
That was the bad news. The good was the fact most of these cases happened before the vaccination programs were initiated. As time went on and more immune systems became trained, the rate went down significantly. By the end of the program, the rate had been reduced by around 66 per cent. In some age groups, this reduction was even greater at close to 80 per cent. In essence, the coaching worked and a greater number of children were able to fight off the disease.
The study teaches us a few important lessons. The first is that vaccines work and are important for our children's immune systems, which like their brains, deserve training and coaching. The second is the importance of government-funded programs such as wide scale vaccination programs to help our children become ready for the future.
The third lesson is more important for parents wondering about whether a vaccine means there's no need to be concerned about a child's health. As this study and many others have shown, vaccines are not 100 per cent effective. They can help to reduce the chance for infection but some children may still fall ill. Even if vaccine programs are in place, always keep an eye on our little ones when they feel unwell. This doesn't mean seeking out the emergency room whenever there's a fever or requesting an antibiotic when there's a cough or cold. But it may mean keeping a closer relationship with your family doctor and regarding this person not only as a medicine expert, but also a great health coach.
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