In the past 200 hundred years, the two most important contributions to better health have been clean water supplies and immunisation. Both save millions of lives throughout the world each year.
Immunisation is a way of creating immunity to certain infections. It uses vaccines that contain relatively harmless antigens (molecules) that come from, or are similar to, the micro-organisms that cause the diseases. Micro-organisms can be viruses, such as measles, or they can be bacteria such as tuberculosis.
Vaccines stimulate the immune system into reacting as if there were a real infection. The immune system then fights off the infection and remembers the organism so it has the ability to fight it off quickly if met again.
Thanks to immunisation, smallpox has been wiped out and most parents in the UK today have never seen a child crippled by polio. Other infections such as diphtheria or tetanus are very rare.
Because of the success of immunisation programmes in the UK, it’s easy to think that we’re safe from infections such as polio and measles. However these diseases are never far away but are only rarely seen in the UK due to high rates of vaccination.
Following the decline in rates of vaccination against whooping cough in the late 1970s the rates of infection rose dramatically. Similarly, following unfounded negative publicity about the MMR vaccine from 1998, the rates of vaccination fell, which led to a rise in the number of measles cases in the UK.
Many other countries still experience high rates of infection and British citizens are at risk of catching these infections when travelling abroad, or bringing them back to the UK. It is important if you are planning a trip abroad that you seek up to date advice from your GP, practice nurse or travel health clinic. Immunisation is an important part of keeping you, your family and society healthy.
For a list of immunisation information leaflets visit the Welsh Assembly Government's immunisation page (external link)