Along with clean water, immunisations have done more to prevent child death than any public health advance ever - but they're not only for babies. There are vaccines to protect you against the most dangerous infections at every age.
I've only once seen a case of tetanus, sometimes called lockjaw, in 30 years as a doctor. That's not because the risk has gone - the germ that causes tetanus is commonly found in soil, and can get into your body through cuts in the skin. It's immunisation that stops it being a daily fear. Every child born today is offered a full course of immunisation against tetanus - three injections in their first year, a pre-school booster at 3 ½ years old and a teenage booster at 14.
Getting all five immunisation should offer good protection, but in some situations you may be offered a booster. If you're travelling to a foreign country with limited medical facilities, and your last booster was over 10 years ago, your practice nurse will offer you a top-up vaccination. As a general rule, if you're travelling anywhere outside Western Europe, USA or Australasia, see your practice nurse to check if you need travel vaccines. Likewise, if you have a deep wound, or dirt has got into a cut, you may be offered a booster at A&E if your last booster was over 10 years ago.
All babies are now offered immunisation against Men B - the germ that causes most cases of meningococcal meningitis and blood poisoning. Since 2013, teenagers have been offered a vaccine that offers protection against Men A, C, W and Y. This is because there's a spike in meningitis among older teenagers - if they didn't have it at 14, make sure university students get protected.
Whooping cough or pertussis causes a miserable cough in adults that can last for months, but it rarely causes serious complications. In babies, however, it can be very serious and even fatal. All babies are offered immunisation against whooping cough at 2, 3 and 4 months - but they're vulnerable to catching it until they've had all their injections. In the last couple of years there have been more cases of whooping cough in the UK (it tends to go through cycles with peaks every few years). As a result, all pregnant women are now offered immunisation between 20 and 32 weeks of pregnancy. They make antibodies to fight off the infection, and pass them on to their babies, protecting them until they've had a chance to be immunised themselves.
Shingles is caused by the same virus that leads to chickenpox. You don't 'catch' shingles - after you've had chickenpox, the virus lives on in your nervous system for life. It's dormant until it reawakens, possibly when your immune system is weaker (maybe because of stress, getting older or taking medicines that affect your immune system). Shingles causes a painful rash in a strip around one side of your trunk or face. The rash settles within a few weeks but you can be left with distressing nerve pain.
The shingles vaccine was introduced a couple of years ago now, and the plan is that once it's been fully rolled out, everyone in England between 70 and 80 should be offered cover. For now, you became eligible for the vaccine for a year from 1st September 2016 if you've turned 70 or 78 in the previous year. If you're 71-73 or 79 and haven't had the vaccine yet, speak to your GP. If you're in your mid-70s, you'll be invited within the next couple of years.
As you get older, your ability to fight off other infections as well as the shingles virus drops. So does having some other long-term health conditions like heart, lung, kidney or liver problems, or type 2 diabetes If you have any of these conditions, or are over 65, you should be offered an annual flu vaccine. You can also get a pneumococcal vaccine, which protects against pneumonia, meningitis and blood poisoning caused by a germ called strep pneumoniae. Most people only need one immunisation to protect for life, although if you have certain health conditions you may need a booster every five years.
Effective prevention relies on everyone (or nearly everyone) being immune - please encourage your family to get protected!
With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.
Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.