Immunization: An Informed Decision

Do you know that over a dozen vaccine-preventable diseases can disrupt your college career?

Here is one example: measles is usually benign in childhood, but its complications can be serious and life threatening - and the risk of death, while low, is greater for adults than for children. The continuing appearance of cases in young adults underlines the need to identify and immunize those who are unprotected. The recent increase in measles outbreaks has been linked to lower immunization rates in the U.S. in recent years. 

How can vaccines benefit me now?

Even though new vaccines are constantly being developed and older vaccines improved, other well-known childhood diseases that vaccines can prevent, such as mumps and chickenpox, still crop up on college campuses. College students are also at risk for such vaccine-preventable diseases as meningococcal meningitis and Hepatitis B - serious diseases with safe, effective vaccines. No one should be stricken with a vaccine-preventable disease. Now that you're on your own, taking charge of your health becomes part of the challenge of independent living. Well-informed decisions about health care depend on knowing the threats to health in your age group and making intelligent use of options available to deal with them.

What are vaccines?

Traditionally, vaccines are preparations of weakened or killed infectious agents (bacteria and viruses, for example) or their derivative products. Modern technology has synthetically engineered some vaccines, increasing their safety. Vaccines do not produce disease; rather, they stimulate an immune response: the formation of antibodies against invading infectious agent(s). This process, immunization, confers protection against future infections caused by the same agents(s) used in making the vaccine.

How successful are vaccines?

Vaccines give you an edge on health your grandparents were denied. Many serious infectious diseases can now be prevented by vaccines: polio, measles; mumps; rubella (German measles); pertussis (whooping cough); diphtheria; tetanus (lockjaw); varicella (chickenpox); meningococcal disease (meningitis and septicemia, a blood infection); and Hepatitis B. As each new vaccine was introduced and widely distributed, the incidence of the targeted disease dropped dramatically. Hepatitis B has been the one exception - despite a safe, effective vaccine, widespread routine vaccination has not yet taken hold. Smallpox, in contrast, has been eradicated worldwide, and polio virtually eliminated in the Americas. The annual number of measles cases (confirmation of the efficacy of universal vaccination) fell from more than 400,000 U.S. cases reported annually before 1963, when the vaccine was licensed, to fewer than 500 in the first half of 1994. Similarly, the number of meningococcal meningitis outbreaks in the military dropped sharply after an effective vaccine was introduced in 1971.

Vaccines required for entering college students

The American College Health Association's Vaccine-Preventable Diseases Task Force and current U.S. public health policy recommend the following vaccines for all children. Your college may require any or all of them.

Tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis, (DTP, Td, Tdap)
Most young adults have completed a primary series against these former childhood diseases, but boosters for diphtheria and tetanus are needed every 10 years to maintain protection and one adult booster containing pertussis (whooping cough) is now recommended.

Measles, mumps, rubella (MMR)
Outbreaks of measles continue to occur on campuses. Women of childbearing age should be sure of immunity to rubella. Two doses of combined MMR vaccine will dispel any uncertainty about immunity to more than one of these diseases.  College students who did not receive two doses of measles vaccine, the first at age 12 months, need to be revaccinated.

Hepatitis B
Vaccination against this serious liver disease is recommended for all entering college students and required for health-care students. Sexually active persons are at highest risk.

Meningococcal vaccine
Meningococcal meningitis is a life-threatening infection of the brain and spinal column, with symptoms of stiff neck, headache, fever, and rash. Most patients exhibit delirium; some become comatose. About 12% of cases are fatal. The disease peaks in late winter through early spring, overlapping with the flu season. Outbreaks on college campuses may be reduced by vaccination of the student population. The vaccine is also administered to military recruits and travelers to areas where the disease is epidemic. The vaccine is given in one dose; protection lasts about three to five years.  It is recommended to obtain the primary injection or booster between the ages of 16-21 or if over 21 and living on campus. A new, separate meningitis vaccine which fights against serotype B meningococcal disease may also be given to increase protection. This vaccine requires two or three doses depending on the vaccine brand.

Highly recommended vaccines for entering college students

Hepatitis A                                                                                                  

Vaccination against this serious liver disease is recommended for all entering college students and especially those who will be traveling.  The virus is spread by contaminated food and drinking water.  It is a series of two vaccinations.

Vaicella                                                                                                       

Varicella (chickenpox) is a highly contagious virus that can be very uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous.  If a student has not had the chickenpox disease, it is recommended to receive two doses of this vaccine.

Vaccines recommended for special situations

Influenza virus vaccine
Influenza (the flu) is an acute respiratory disease caused by an influenza virus. Symptoms include headache, fever, prostration, and sore throat. Sufficiently serious to keep you out of classes for two weeks, the flu can be prevented by vaccination. It should be repeated yearly because virus strains change.

Travelers' vaccines
All travelers should have completed recommended childhood vaccinations. Persons going to locales where polio is endemic or epidemic should also be vaccinated. Other special-use vaccines are required or recommended for travel or work abroad. They include those against Rabies, Yellow Fever, Japanese Encephalitis, Typhoid, Hepatitis A, Plague, and Cholera.

Human Papillomavirus (HPV)                                                                             
HPV is a common virus that is spread through sexual contact. Most of the time, HPV has no symptoms so people don't know they have it. HPV has been linked to cancer, including cervical cancer.

Tuberculosis (TB) screening

Tuberculosis is a debilitating bacterial disease of the lungs. The initial infection can be serious in children and young adults. In recent years, the number of tuberculosis cases has been increasing among college students. It is easily detectable by a skin test, or a blood test, and treatable with antibiotics.  Refer to your health history form for requirements for incoming students.  After traveling, ask your physician or college health services about a screening test, that indicates whether you have been infected with tuberculosis.

Where can I be immunized? Are vaccines expensive?

Vaccines are relatively inexpensive, and they are sometimes made available at no cost through public health clinics or student health services. Check your health insurance policy -- it may cover the cost of immunizations.  The Student Health Center provides all required and recommended immunizations.

How safe are vaccines?

Licensed vaccines are safe and effective, although adverse reactions (soreness or redness at the injection site or mild fever, for example) are associated with all vaccines. There are adverse reactions that are specific to each vaccine. Precautions apply to every vaccine. Some are not recommended during pregnancy. Some vaccines are not safe to use if a person has a compromised immune system or certain health conditions. No vaccine protects 100% of susceptible individuals. Check with your physician or public health/student health clinic if you have specific questions or concerns.

Where can I get more information?

  • Pepperdine Student Health Center: (310) 506-4316, prompt 3 or http://community.pepperdine.edu/healthcenter/
  • Center for Disease Control: www.cdc.gov/vaccines OR 1-800-CDC-INFO
  • Local and state public health departments
  • Your personal physician

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