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This post has been adapted from a post written for the Colorado Children’s Immunization Coalition’s Team Vaccine Blog and the Immunology 101 Series.

By Aimee Pugh-Bernard

Aimee Pugh-Bernard2As a scientist, and an educator, and a mother of ten-year-old twins, I’m attentive to kids’ health. Over the past year, there have been a record number of cases of whooping cough (pertussis) and measles across the country. As a scientist and educator, this news presents a challenge. As a parent, it is worrisome. The choices we make as parents regarding immunizing our children affect not only our children, but those around them, also known as “herd immunity.”

Herd immunity, also called “community immunity,” is the general idea that the more people who are immunized and protected, the less chance there is for a disease to spread among the members of a community. This concept is dependent upon the majority of the community being vaccinated. And unlike the majority rule, with herd immunity, the percentage of people who need to be vaccinated to maintain herd immunity varies according to the pathogen (bacterium or virus), as some pathogens are more contagious than others. For example, the measles are highly contagious. In order for the herd immunity concept to work against measles, approximately 95% of the community needs to be vaccinated against measles. Similar numbers apply to the whooping cough, which has increased in prominence by 24% in the United States for the first half of this year compared to the same time period in 2013.

Creating and maintaining herd immunity is especially important because there are members of every community who cannot be immunized—such as infants too young for particular vaccines, individuals who are immunocompromised, and even pregnant women who cannot receive certain vaccines. Herd immunity keeps them safe.

It is absolutely essential that we, as members of a community, understand that the choices we make regarding vaccinations affect everyone in the community. Think of the infants and grandparents, who are most likely to die from contagious diseases; the children, parents, friends, neighbors, colleagues—your choices affect them. We are connected in this globetrotting, highly mobile, social society. It is a mistake to think that not vaccinating is a risk-free choice.

Choosing not to vaccinate is, equally, the choice to risk contracting a vaccine-preventable disease. It is the choice to miss work or school if you or one of your loved ones becomes ill with a vaccine-preventable disease. It is the choice to put yourself and/or your family members and those around you at risk for a vaccine-preventable disease. And even worse, it is a choice that may result in a much more tragic event—the suffering or death of someone close to you.

But we all have a common goal of keeping our communities healthy, especially for our kids. Scientists and physicians know, but people frequently forget, that all the vaccines on the American Academy of Pediatrics immunization schedule were created to protect us from the diseases that cause the most harm and often result in long term effects or death. Those of us in developed countries are fortunate enough to have seen very little of these vaccine-preventable diseases in our time. Why? Well, it’s because vaccines work; they’ve been working for decades; and they will continue to work far into the future if we all comply and become vaccinated.

So when making decisions regarding vaccinations, remember that we are a herd—a community—that is increasingly connected in this global society. Your decisions don’t only affect you—or your kids or parents—they affect everyone around you. Make the right decision today: choose to protect everyone.

Aimee Pugh-Bernard received her Ph.D. in Immunology at the University of Rochester in 2001 and went on to complete a four-year post-doctoral position at National Jewish Health between 2002 and 2006. Since the fall of 2007, Aimee has taught full-time at CU Denver in the Department of Integrative Biology. She is also the mother of 10-year-old twins, a student of martial arts, a long-distance runner, and a vaccine advocate that writes an “Immunology 101 Series” blog for the Colorado Children’s Immunization Coalition.