What Happens If We Lose Our Herd Immunity?

Posted: Oct 24th, 2019 at 12:00AM - by e7 Health

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When you choose to get vaccinated, you're not just protecting yourself from unwanted diseases. You're also helping keep your community healthy. This concept is called herd immunity, also known as herd protection or community immunity. We achieve this kind of immunity when a high percentage of the population — the majority, actually — is protected via vaccination against certain diseases. Herd immunity makes it increasingly difficult for the disease to spread because so few people are vulnerable to it. The important point to note is that a sizable number of people or a considerable portion of the community must be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity.

This is tremendously essential in protecting everyone, especially vulnerable children and adults who are predominantly prone to acquire infectious diseases but cannot obtain or safely receive vaccines. Vaccine Knowledge Project says that these are the groups of "people without a fully-working immune system... people on chemotherapy treatment whose immune system is weakened, and people with HIV/AIDS."

It also classifies "newborn babies who are too young to be vaccinated, elderly people, and those who are very ill in the hospital" as individuals who need herd immunity to protect them from life-threatening diseases.

However, as Dr. Manish Sadarangani discusses in the Oxford Vaccine Group, the population needed for herd immunity to work will still depend on the specific germ that's causing the infection, as well as how contagious that germ is. He further explains that because the measles is so outrageously contagious, it may need about 90%-95% of the population vaccinated to achieve herd immunity. Polio, on the other hand, might need only around 80%-85% of the community vaccinated to be effective.

Dr. Sadarangani also clarifies that herd immunity does not work for all kinds of infections and diseases, claiming that it will only work for infections that are spread between people, like measles. For example, community immunity will not work on tetanus, wherein bacteria come from the environment and not from other people who have such kind of disease.

This means that even if everyone around you is vaccinated against it, yet you are not, there's a very high possibility for you to get infected.

Viruses and bacteria are known to be physically invisible and can travel very quickly. This is why people can get infected easily and unknowingly. However, when a substantial percentage of the population gets vaccinated, these germs cannot simply be passed on from one person to another. As Vaccines.gov elaborates, this will then decrease the chances of communicable diseases spreading within communities.

This also means that even if a person does become sick with a disease, there is a significantly lower chance that an outbreak will happen. The disease will become rarer over time, and it could eventually become eradicated.

Still, a lot of people question why they should get vaccinated, especially when they can get protected through herd immunity. Many also continue to doubt the need for vaccinations given that some of these said deadly diseases have already been wiped out. Here’s why.

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Don't Just Protect Yourself

With the way diseases are transferred from person to person, getting vaccinated prevents you from acquiring as well as transmitting illnesses. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, outbreaks happen when one or two cases of a disease are introduced to a community where most members are not vaccinated against it.

It also confirms that the measles outbreak is largely due to groups of people with low vaccination levels.

This means that if vaccination rates decline on a larger scale, infective illnesses and diseases, even ones that were once declared eradicated, can resurface and become common once again.

Diseases Are Still Here

Vaccine.gov explains, "Many vaccine-preventable diseases that are not in the United States very much still exist in other countries." Travelers to the US can possibly carry and spread the disease when they get into the country.

The CDC agrees with this and shares that "More than 350,000 cases of measles worldwide were reported in 2011, with outbreaks in the Pacific, Asia, Africa, and Europe." It was only because most Americans were vaccinated against measles (at that time) that an epidemic didn't happen.

For this reason, people should not be complacent and let themselves be vulnerable by choosing not to vaccinate, as outbreaks can be just a plane ride away.

Diseases Can and Will Return

The CDC tells of the epidemic that happened in Japan a few decades ago. The more the Japanese children were getting pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine, the fewer cases occurred and the death rate went down. However, when immunization rates dropped a few years later, more than 13,000 people acquired whooping cough and 41 people died because of whooping cough.

When routine vaccination resumed, the number of pertussis cases once again went on the decline.

This proves that vaccinations are not just for you today, but also for the people around you and generations to come. Getting vaccinated will help prevent the return of these sometimes fatal diseases.

Direct Vaccination is Key

As Oxford Vaccine Group posits, there will always be that possibility where you meet or come into contact with someone who isn't or cannot be vaccinated, for medical reasons or others. The World Health Organization has declared that vaccine hesitancy is one of the top ten global threats to health in 2019.

This is why the best way to protect yourself (and all of the people around you) is to get vaccinated directly, rather than just banking on the community for your immunity.

Vaccination does reduce the risk of people acquiring and transmitting diseases. But community immunity also protects the vulnerable ones who heavily rely on us for immunity, like people with serious allergies, type 1 diabetes, other health conditions, and those who do not have strong immune responses to vaccines. And those of us who can, we owe it to them to get vaccinated and provide them with immunity.

Together, through vaccination, let us make it our responsibility to keep our communities healthy while also limiting the possibility of epidemics and outbreaks to occur. Let us help ensure that we live, grow, and thrive in communities that are strong, healthy, and resilient. And community immunity is one way, the best way that we can prove that there is definitely strength in numbers.

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