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Vaccines 101: When to get them and why

vaccines 101

Are you up to date with your shots? If not, August is National Immunization Awareness Month and a great time to learn more about age-appropriate vaccines.

Immunizations help prevent dangerous and sometimes deadly diseases. Doctors in the U.S. have been vaccinating against diseases, such as polio and diphtheria, for many years. And it seems to be working: In the decade before the polio vaccine was introduced in 1955, more than 35,000 cases of polio were reported; by 1965, only 61 cases.

"Many people think that vaccines are mostly for children, but everyone can benefit from vaccines," says Melinda Wharton, director of the Immunization Services Division for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "There are recommendations for preteens, adolescents and adults, too."

Plans -- private ones and those through the Affordable Care Act's marketplaces -- generally cover vaccines that are approved by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). Protect yourself by learning about vaccines, schedules and how insurance coverage may help you pay for recommended vaccines at all ages.

What is a vaccine or immunization?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes immunization and vaccine terms as following.

  • Immunity: You're protected from an infectious disease. When you become immune to a disease, you can be exposed to the disease without becoming infected.
  • Vaccine: A product that stimulates your immune system to produce immunity to a specific disease. Vaccines are usually administered by needle injections but can be given by nose spray or by mouth.
  • Vaccination: The act or process of introducing a vaccine into your body to produce immunity to a specific disease.
  • Immunization: The process by which you become protected against a disease through vaccination and occurs after you get a vaccine. This word is often used interchangeably with the words "vaccination" or "inoculation."

How vaccines work

Vaccines "teach" your body how to defend itself when germs invade it by exposing you to a very small and safe amount of viruses or bacteria that have been weakened or killed.

Your immune system then learns to recognize and attack the infection if you're exposed to it later in life. As a result, you won't become sick, or, if you get an illness like the flu, you may have a milder infection.

Getting vaccinated is a way to protect your health and the people who come into contact with you. In "herd immunity," most members of the community are protected against a disease because most people have been vaccinated against that disease. Everyone is safer because there is little opportunity for an outbreak.

"Herd immunity is important because everybody can't get a vaccine," says Wharton. For example, she adds, "cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and small babies can't get vaccines."

Understanding the type of vaccines

According to the CDC, there are four types of vaccines.

  1. Live virus vaccines use the weakened (attenuated) form of the virus. The measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and the varicella (chickenpox) vaccine are examples.
  2. Killed (inactivated) vaccines are made from a protein or other small pieces taken from a virus or from bacteria. This includes the flu vaccine.
  3. Toxoid vaccines contain a toxin or chemical made by the bacteria or virus. They make you immune to the harmful effects of the infection, instead of to the infection itself. Examples include the diphtheria and tetanus vaccines.
  4. Biosynthetic vaccines contain manmade substances that are very similar to pieces of the virus or bacteria such as the Hib (Haemophilus influenza type B) conjugate vaccine.

When should I get my shots?

Immunization schedules are updated every year. People can find the recommendation schedules by age group on the CDC's website.

For example, the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine is recommended for all boys and girls ages 11 to 12 years. The vaccine helps protect against genital warts in men and women, and cervical cancer in women. HPV is the most commonly sexually transmitted infection in the United States.

Does my health insurance cover my vaccinations?

Insurance has historically done a good job at covering vaccines, especially for young children, notes Wharton. Additionally, the Vaccines for Children (VFC) Program is a federally funded program that provides vaccines to children whose parents may not afford them.

To learn more about your vaccine coverage in your health insurance plan, look for the words "immunization," "vaccines," or "preventive services."

You can get typically get vaccinated at your primary care doctor's office, local health department or pharmacy. If you have concerns about getting vaccines for yourself or your children, talk to your health care providers and seek trusted sources of health information from websites such as

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