“Combatting infectious disease through vaccine is one of our greatest public health achievements,” says Dr. Vivien Brown, Family Physician and Assistant Professor, Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Toronto.

According to Immunize Canada, a national advocacy group promoting vaccine awareness and education, infectious diseases were the leading causes of death worldwide one hundred years ago. Today they count for less than five percent of all deaths in Canada, largely because of nation-wide immunization programs.

Safe and effective

Despite these statistics, fewer people are getting vaccinated because of safety and effectiveness concerns. According to Dr. Brown, neither of these should alarm. “Vaccines are extremely safe and the guidelines we have from Health Canada, the World Health Organization, and the U.S. Center for Disease Control all agree. You’re more likely to get Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a rare complication of influenza,  from the flu itself than from the flu shot.”

As for effectiveness, “flu and pneumonia vaccines diminish the severity of illness and decrease hospitalizations in older adults. In children, the vaccines not only decrease severity, but are also more likely to eradicate the disease. With illnesses like tetanus, polio, and diphtheria, vaccines are completely effective in eradicating the disease in both children and adults,” says Dr. Brown.

Vaccines are also effective against dormant viruses, such as shingles — a painful condition caused by reactivation of the varicella zoster (chickenpox) virus — which strikes about 130,000 Canadian adults per year. While anyone who has had chickenpox can get this illness, most who do are over age 50 with a weakened immune system. Because occurrence, symptom severity, and complications increase with age, it is recommended that adults over age 60 get the shingles vaccine. And Canadian guidelines suggest that the vaccine can be offered to those over the age of 50.

Conversely, not getting vaccinated against infectious diseases increases death and disability rates. “We lose about 3,500 Canadians a year to flu and pneumonia — mostly the very old and the very young,” says Dr. Brown. 

Other steps Canadians can take to protect themselves and others include thorough handwashing and staying home when sick.

Above all, research the vaccines that are right for you based on your age, health status, and occupation — and get vaccinated. “Canada is such a fantastic country and for the most part vaccine is accessible through public health, and we need to take advantage of that,” says Dr. Brown.