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Posted: Monday, June 3, 2019

What is Community Immunity?

With the recent measles outbreak garnering lots of attention nationwide, there’s also been much discussion about the concept of “herd immunity,” also known as “community immunity,” which posits that a disease or illness is less likely to spread from person to person if a significant proportion of the population has been immunized against it either through vaccination or previous exposure. The idea is that community immunity is a benefit to everyone living in a community because, if enough people are vaccinated against a specific contagious disease, there’s a much smaller chance of catching it.

“Community immunity has several direct benefits,” said Mary Kathryn Cockrill from Blount Memorial’s Infection Control team, sharing information from the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC). “Obviously, you and your family are protected, but it also protects some of the most vulnerable people in a community, such as the elderly, infants, expectant mothers and those with weakened immune systems. I know someone personally who recently had a stem cell transplant, which wiped out all her previous vaccinations, so she has been very concerned about the recent outbreak of measles because she could not be vaccinated against it for quite some time as a result of her procedure. Even though she cannot be vaccinated against measles right now, community immunity helps reduce her risk of being affected because it keeps outbreaks of preventable diseases like measles from occurring in the first place,” she explained.

Cockrill says vaccinations had previously all but eliminated measles outbreaks in the United States. “Just 19 years ago, measles was essentially eliminated,” she said. “There was no continuous transmission of the disease for more than 12 months. Fast-forward to today, there have been more than 800 individual cases of measles in 23 states as of May 10, 2019 – the largest number of cases reported in nearly two decades. This is, in part, a direct result of a lack of vaccinations. When we stop vaccinating, diseases that either no longer exist or are ‘on the ropes’ can resurface, which creates an increase in epidemics and outbreaks,” she explained.

“The bottom line is that community immunity affects us all,” Cockrill continued. “Protecting yourself from preventable diseases and illnesses protects not only you and your family, but other people and their families, as well. Check your immunization records to make sure you’ve received all your necessary vaccinations. If you don’t have them, your primary care provider or health department may be able to help. Talk to your doctor about whether you or someone in your family would benefit from additional vaccines or boosters, which can help jump-start your immunity if it’s been a while since you had certain vaccines,” she explained. “People who live in communities with high vaccinations rates are effectively protected from vaccine-preventable infectious diseases. If you’re protected, you can protect others,” she added.

The Blount Memorial Physicians Group currently is making additional doses of the measles vaccine readily available to its patients and members of the community. Patients are encouraged to make appointments to receive the shots through their primary care providers to determine if getting the vaccine is necessary or recommended based on their personal health histories. Patients who do not have a primary care provider can call 865-984-3864 to schedule an appointment with a Physicians Group provider.

Shots also are available after-hours and on weekends at East Tennessee Medical Group’s CareToday Clinic, located at 266 Joule Street in Alcoa. It accepts walk-in and new patients.

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