Illinois public health officials are hoping vaccination campaigns help stop the spread of several prominent diseases.
By immunizing as many people as possible, health care providers want to prevent disease from taking hold in Illinois. Dr. Nirav Shah is Director of the Illinois Department of Public Health. He says right now there's an emerging threat from outside the state.
"A number of states across the country, including some of Illinois' neighboring states, have been experiencing very large outbreaks of Hepatitis A," he said.
Hepatitis A is spread by contaminated food and water and can cause vomiting, nausea and jaundice. In vulnerable populations it can escalate to acute liver failure. Shah says his agency began planning the campaign a year ago, in order to vaccinate high-risk groups.
"Those are individuals who are often homeless, often who are using drugs, whether injectable or not, and some other risk factors. We've taken a look at the state and tried to focus all our efforts on those counties where we know to be the highest risk," he said.
So far, the health department has distributed about a thousand vaccines among 22 counties, ranging from Cook and Winnebago to Peoria and Sangamon. Dr. Shah says this is a "first wave" in preventing Hepatitis A, and more vaccines will be given out to a greater breadth of counties.
"The uptake by local health departments and their partners on the ground, whether it's homeless shelters or free clinics, has been quite remarkable, and we're really proud of the success we've seen and are looking forward to sustaining it," he said.
On a more local level, county health departments offer more common vaccines, like the flu shot. Cindy Graves is Director of Community Health and Prevention at the DeKalb County Health Department. She says a flu shot helps everyone.
"Also protecting those who can not be, such as very small children, the elderly, the immuno-compromised, so it's really affecting not just you but the other people around you too," she said.
Local health departments keep people up to date with other common vaccines, such as tetanus, diphtheria, and whooping cough. DeKalb County's Communicable Disease Coordinator, Lorna Schmidt, says even if someone doesn't have insurance, her staff can help them find a plan.
"But we have someone in-house that's a certified application counselor," she said. "With her permission, we give her their information or the other way around. People are very welcoming of that."
Even with vaccines widely available, health departments also need to overcome people's misconceptions about getting shots. Dr. Shah says one of the biggest is people thinking that the vaccine will actually get them sick.
"The flu vaccine doesn't contain any live viruses," he said. "It just contains some particles of viruses, which are, on their own, impossible, incapable of giving someone the flu."
There's also the issue of complacency. Professor Masih Shokrani teaches immunology at Northern Illinois University. He says some people think they no longer need vaccines if there isn't a disease like measles breaking out anymore. But studies dating back to the 1970s say otherwise.
"If people do not get the recommended vaccines, the spread of the disease will be exacerbated and certain infections could come back," he said.
State health director Shah says this even applies to flu vaccines on the national level.
"Nearly 80,000 people died of the flu last year. That's the number of people who attend the Super Bowl. And that's a significant, sizable fraction of the population," he said. "Many of those deaths could have been avoided, had they gotten the flu shot."
Fortunately, health professionals say vaccines are doing their part. Dr. Shokrani says there have also been significant advancements. These range from an effective Human Papilloma Virus vaccine for teenagers, to conjugate vaccines, which can be used in younger people with weaker immune systems.
"These days, vaccines against Haemophilous influenzae and also strep/pneumonia infections are used by this methodology," Shokrani said.
Scientists continue the search for vaccines to more persistent diseases, like malaria and HIV. But for now, health professionals recommend that people stay up to date with their scheduled shots.