Do your vaccines have you covered?


Whether your summer plans include exotic travel or no travel at all, tetanus and whooping cough are two good reasons to make sure your immunization record is up to date.

“Childhood immunization doesn’t provide lifelong immunity for either of those conditions,” said Dr. Robin Taylor, Medical Officer of Health, Nova Scotia Health Authority for Halifax, Eastern Shore and West Hants. Tetanus, sometimes called lockjaw, and whooping cough, also known as pertussis, are serious illnesses that in some instances can be fatal, even to adults. 

 “We’re very good at getting our children immunized and taking care of our children’s health, but we forget to take care of our own immunization needs,” said Dr. Taylor. In Nova Scotia, however, there is an easy way to rectify the oversight. It is the three-in-one Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis) vaccine, available from your family doctor. It’s fast, it’s free and it provides 10 years of coverage. In consultation with your doctor, booster shots should be obtained at 10-year intervals to maintain protection. 
Here’s why you should put the Tdap vaccine on your summer to-do list.

Summer activities and tetanus 

If you aren’t immunized, gardening, other outdoor projects around the home or cottage, or an animal bite could leave you vulnerable to tetanus. The spores of tetanus lurk in soil, dust and manure, and on those things in contact with them, like rusty nails. When the spores find a cut or an open wound, infection can follow. While the odds of contracting this disease are slim, incidents do occur.

When they do, results can be severe. Tetanus invades the nervous system and causes painful muscle contractions, mainly in the jaw and neck muscles before progressing to other parts of the body. It can interfere with breathing and become life threatening. 

“More than 10 per cent of the people who get tetanus die from it,” said Dr. Taylor. “And it is much more likely to result in death if the person is over age 65. The only effective means of protection is vaccination.”

The toxin produced by the tetanus spores causes the illness; it is not passed person to person.

“If you don’t have protection yourself, it doesn’t matter if your kids are protected or your family is protected or the neighbourhood is protected,” Dr. Taylor said. “If you’re exposed to the tetanus toxin and you’re not vaccinated, you’re at risk to develop tetanus.” 

If anything punctures the skin, be sure to take normal precautions, said Dr. Taylor. The wound should be cleaned with soap and water and medical attention should be sought, if needed.

Whooping cough on the rise

Unlike tetanus, whooping cough is on the rise. The Halifax area has seen twice as many cases in the first 6 months of 2015 as it did during all of 2014. 

Any reported cases puts public health officials on guard because whooping cough is highly contagious. 

“It can spread like wildfire,” said Dr. Taylor. 

Transmission occurs through airborne droplets from the noses and throats of those who are infected. The disease causes frequent and intense coughing, sometimes so severe it leads to vomiting or loss of consciousness. 

“It’s very rare that an adult will die from whooping cough,” notes Dr. Taylor. “But infants are at risk of death. It’s a horrible disease. It used to be called the 100-day cough; you end up coughing for months.”

Dr. Taylor emphasizes that adults who get immunized not only do themselves a favour, they provide a vital layer of protection for children against the disease. This is particularly true for children under 12 months, for whom the disease can be fatal.

“Even if all the recommended vaccinations have been given, a baby less than a year old will not have developed enough immunity to protect against whooping cough,” said Dr. Taylor. “That’s why mum, dad, grandma, granddad and the baby sitter and everybody else needs to have their shot too.” 

Nova Scotia children are vaccinated against whooping cough at two, four, six and 18 months of age, before starting school, and then given a booster shot in grade 7. 

“Of course adults need a booster too”, said Dr. Taylor. “Vaccines in Canada are safe, and made to high standards,” she notes. “The Tdap shot is also recommended for women once they reach 26 weeks of pregnancy, to protect mother and newborn – through protection received in the womb – from whooping cough.”

Travel abroad

For those intending to go abroad this summer, Dr. Taylor urges travellers, well before their departure dates, to also seek immunized protection against diseases not commonly found in Canada. 

“Some vaccines require multiple shots months apart to be effective, so it is important to start the process in good time,” advised Dr. Taylor. She recommends travel clinics to sort out pre-travel needs. In addition to privately run travel clinics, the Central Region of the Nova Scotia Health Authority operates a clinic in Burnside, Dartmouth. 

Manage your immunization record

Once you get your shots, make sure you make a record and keep it up to date, said Dr. Taylor. An easy way to do this is to download the free ImmunizeCA app. It lets you record and store vaccination data, access vaccination schedules, manage family vaccination appointments, access vaccine information and receive disease outbreak alerts for your area.