Biology & Medicine

Teens need better understanding of vaccines as next generation of parents, study finds

Subjects described immunizable diseases as from “the past,” “the war” and “Victorian times”

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Teenagers have limited understanding of the risks of diseases like measles and meningitis, according to a new study published in the journal Vaccine. The researchers, from the Social and Public Health Sciences Unit of the Medical Research Council (MRC), say giving teenagers accurate information about vaccines could help them make informed decisions as parents in the future.

About the research


The article was just posted online in Vaccine:

"Teenagers' understandings of and attitudes towards vaccines and vaccine-preventable diseases: A qualitative study ," by S. Hilton, C. Patterson, E. Smith, H. Bedford, K. Hunt [/note]

According to statistics from Wales, uptake of teenage vaccines is significantly lower than infant vaccines – 33.6 percent compared to more than 95 percent in infants. But results of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine introduced in 2008 are positive: almost 90% of girls in England aged 12-13 have had the vaccine, suggesting that immunization of teenagers can be highly successful.

Diseases in the study

The study aimed to examine what information teenagers need on immunization. To establish this, the researchers explored the understandings of vaccination and vaccine-preventable diseases, attitudes towards immunization and experiences of immunization. They studied nine diseases: human papillomavirus, meningitis, tetanus, diphtheria, polio, whooping cough, measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis B and chickenpox.

Since 1994, teenagers in the UK have only received three vaccinations: tetanus, polio and diphtheria booster vaccines to protect them throughout adulthood. In early 2012, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation recommended adding a booster of meningitis C vaccine for teenagers.

Their misunderstandings

Shona Hilton, PhD For the new study, researchers interviewed 59 teenagers aged 13 to 18 in 12 focus groups. Participants reported that they considered meningitis to be very dangerous, but really only a risk for babies.

"This is the sort of misunderstanding that might be worth addressing," said Dr. Shona Hilton, one of the authors of the paper.

Previous research has focused on parents' understanding and attitudes to vaccination, resulting in general agreement that parents' understanding of vaccine-preventable diseases is limited. By providing younger adults with accurate information, we could be preparing parents of the future, say the researchers.

"It's important to remember that these young people will be the next generation of parents," said Dr. Hilton. "They were keen to learn about immunization and understand, for example, how vaccines are developed, introduced and monitored. All of these things could actually benefit them making decisions throughout their lives, for themselves and their children.

Victims of our own success

© Most teenagers have not experienced vaccine-preventable diseases, thanks to the success of immunization.

One participant associated poliomyelitis with the "1940s" – there was an outbreak of polio in that decade – and many other diseases were also seen as historical, being described as from "the past," "the war" and "Victorian times."

Explanations for the reduced threat in the UK included successful mass immunization campaigns, medical advances and improved living conditions. Participants did understand the importance of immunization in keeping these "historical" diseases at bay, acknowledging that the threat would increase if immunization were to stop.

"While it is welcome that fewer teenagers have experience vaccine-preventable diseases, this presents public health advocates with the challenge of communicating benefits of immunization when advantages are less visible," conclude the authors of the paper. [note color="#f1f9fc" position="center" width=800 margin=10]

A history of vaccination

429 BC —Thucydides describes survivors of a "plague" in 430 BC (believed to be smallpox or typhoid) immune to subsequent infection.

900 AD — The Chinese reportedly used inoculation with infected tissue to protect against smallpox infection.

1700-1800 Inoculation with infected tissue (variolation) spread through Europe. In 1796 Edward Jenner inoculated James Phipps, an eight year old boy, with pus from the cowpox blisters on the hands of a milkmai

1800-1900 — In the 1880s, Louis Pasteur developed a vaccine against rabies, and in 1890 Emil von Behring developed vaccines against diphtheria and tetanus.

1920s — The first vaccination programs were started. Scientists developed vaccines using toxoids – bacterial toxins that have been made less toxic to generate an immune reaction.

1950s — In 1955 polio vaccination was started in the UK, reducing the number of cases significantly. 1970s — Scientists developed vaccines based on parts of viruses: split pathogens or subunits. In 1979, the WHO announced that smallpox had been eradicated.

1980s-90s — By the 1980s, scientists were able to manipulate the DNA of viruses to produce effective vaccines.

2000s — In 2008, Professor Harald zur Hausen was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for proving that human papillomavirus (HPV) causes cervical cancer. His discovery led to the development of a vaccine against HPV, which was given to girls in England as part of a vaccination programme the same year. Source: Paolo Bonanni, José Ignacio Santos, "Vaccine evolution," Perspectives in Vaccinology, 2011, Pages 1-24 [/note] [divider]

Reporting for Elsevier Connect

Lucy GoodchildLucy Goodchild joined Elsevier in November as marketing communications manager for Life Sciences at Elsevier, promoting Elsevier's immunology and microbiology journals and conferences from her home base in Amsterdam. She has a background in science writing and press relations through her previous work at the Society for General Microbiology and Imperial College London . Goodchild earned a BSc degree in genetics and microbiology from the University of Leeds and an MSc in the history of science, technology and medicine from Imperial College London.

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