Medical sleuths have been trailing the elusive cold and flu viruses for more
than a century. Now they finally might be onto something. A universal flu
vaccine could be on the horizon -- and even more effective treatments for the
common cold. Wayne Marasco, MD, PhD, is one of the most ardent sleuths. His
perp -- the flu virus -- has caused the deaths of more than 36,000 Americans,
and that’s just in one year.
Marasco is an associate professor of medicine at the Dana-Farber Cancer
"Immunizations are the greatest medical advance of the last one hundred
years," says Richard L. Wasserman, MD, PhD, clinical professor in the
department of pediatrics at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School
"There's no question that immunizations have done more good for more
people than any other medical intervention," agrees Ricardo U. Sorenson,
MD, chair of the department of pediatrics, Louisiana State University Health
Sciences Center in New Orleans.
Vaccinations have essentially wiped out diseases that once infected hundreds
of thousands of people every year and killed tens of thousands. Yet many of us
take immunizations for granted and may assume that, once we're adults, we don't
need them anymore.
We do. While we may outgrow our need for booster chairs, we never outgrow
our need for booster shots. So if you suspect you're not up-to-date with your
vaccinations, it's time for a checkup.
Why Get Immunized?
Vaccines don't get the credit they deserve -- a testament to their success.
Vaccines have so effectively wiped out many diseases that these illnesses seem
as extinct as dinosaurs.
"How many people do you know who have had diphtheria or tetanus?" asks
Wasserman. "Probably none. That's how well vaccines work."
Sorenson agrees that, nowadays, we have a casual attitude toward the
diseases that terrified our grandparents. "People tend to forget how
serious diseases like measles, mumps, rubella, and whooping
cough were because they haven't experienced them," he tells
But what's risky about our casual attitude is that these diseases are not
extinct. In some parts of the world, they're common. If people stopped getting
vaccinated in the U.S., they would become common here.
"I've seen the results of not getting vaccinated," says Wasserman.
"I've seen children sick with vaccine-preventable diseases, like whooping
cough and polio. It's tragic."
Why Do Adults Need Vaccinations?
Many vaccines work by introducing a dead or weakened version of a germ into
your body, allowing your body to become familiar with it. Your immune system
then reacts by creating antibody proteins custom-designed to fight that
particular microbe. Then, if you ever come into contact with the real germ, the
antibodies attack it. This is how vaccines grant you immunity.
However, that immunity doesn't necessarily last forever. Those antibodies
may fade away with time.
"After age 30 or so, the potency of immunity wanes," Wasserman says.
"In the same way that your muscle strength fades after middle age, the
vaccine immunity that protected you when you were young loses its strength when
you're in your 40s, and 50s, and 60s."
Happily, the solution is simple: get a booster shot. This is a way of
reminding your immune system how to fight the microbe.
In addition to boosters, you need other vaccines as you get older and your
risk of getting certain diseases increases.