In the second of this two-part series, we look at how vaccines to prevent polio and other diseases have affected the lives of Saskatchewan residents.

When Georgie Taylor was an eight-year-old living in rural Alberta in 1947, she was diagnosed with polio. Taylor suffered physically from the illness, unable to leave her bed or sit upright, and she suffered emotionally as she recalls the fear and isolation of living in hospital for most of that year of her life.

Read more about Taylor’s experience in part one of this series.

Provincial vaccination program
The polio vaccine is one of many delivered through the provincial immunization program today. Saskatoon Health Region, along with other health regions in the province, immunizes infants, children, adolescents and adults. Vaccines are provided through a variety of programs at child health clinics, schools, through street health initiatives and at seasonal clinics.

The provincial immunization program helps protect against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis (whooping cough), polio, Haemophilus influenza type b, rotavirus, measles, mumps, rubella, varicella (chickenpox), meningococcus, Streptococcal pneumoniae bacteria and hepatitis B. Grade six female students are also offered the human papilloma virus vaccine. New parents and caregivers of infants younger than six months should receive a booster for tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis. Adults turning 65 should receive pneumococcal 23 vaccine, available at mass influenza clinics each fall. And all provincial residents six months of age and older are offered free influenza immunization each year.

In mid-January this year, a case of measles was confirmed in an unimmunized infant in Regina who had travelled by air to Saskatchewan from another country where the disease is present. Since then, the province confirmed another 10 cases.

“Measles cases are quite uncommon in Saskatchewan, but this situation underscores the importance of vaccinations,” explained Deputy Chief Medical Health Officer Denise Werker at the time the first measles case was confirmed. “The risk of exposure to highly contagious diseases can be particularly high during busy travel seasons for people travelling within Canada as well as to and from countries experiencing measles outbreaks like the Philippines.”

The myths debunked
Despite the fact immunization is free, widely available, and scientifically proven to be among the safest of modern medical tools, many people don’t take advantage of vaccines. As a case in point, about three quarters of people living within Saskatoon Health Region boundaries still haven’t been immunized for influenza.

There are several myths about vaccines. Just a few of the more common ones are:

“Many vaccine-preventable diseases can cause illness that lasts for weeks, months or years and can even kill the person,” says Dr. Shovita Padhi, deputy medical health officer for Saskatoon Health Region. “Immunization is well worth the time.”

Georgie Taylor feels strongly about vaccination. As a child in the 1940s in Alberta, she suffered from polio and was hospitalized for a year, unable to leave her bed or even sit up. Her stance on vaccination is unwavering. “People who diminish immunization and don’t vaccinate their kids are just plain crazy.”

How vaccines workVaccinePT2-graph2
Vaccines work by creating proteins or particles called antibodies. These antibodies boost an individual’s immune system, fight disease and prevent a person from getting sick from the vaccine-preventable disease. In effect, vaccines teach the body’s immune system how to react to a certain disease by mimicking the infection.

Most vaccines contain a small amount of the weakened or dead germ from the disease. As soon as the vaccine is administered to a person, normally through a needle, the immune system responds as if the germ in the vaccine was real and immediately builds antibodies to fight the disease. Antibodies help trap and kill germs that cause disease. Because antibodies remain in the body a long time, if the body encounters the real germ in the future, the immune system is ready and destroys the germ before the person become sick.

That’s how vaccines protect against disease without a person having to suffer from the disease itself.