Answers to frequently asked questions about vaccines.
What are vaccines?
Vaccines are biological substances that stimulate the body’s immune system to prevent a specific disease.
How do they protect you?
Vaccines cause the body’s immune system to produce chemicals and antibodies, which are proteins that identify and neutralize harmful substances like bacteria and viruses. For example, the pneumococcal vaccine stimulates the immune system to produce the type of antibody that prevents infection from the organism, Streptococcus pneumonia, which can cause pneumonia.
Are there different types of vaccines?
Yes. Vaccines can be live and weakened (“attenuated”), or killed. Killed vaccines can use whole organisms or parts of organisms. In addition, there are now vaccines that use parts of organisms which have been produced in the laboratory using recombinant (genetic) technology.
What’s an adjuvant?
An adjuvant is a substance that increases the body’s immune response to an antigen — the part of an organism that stimulates the immune system. The antigen in some vaccines doesn’t stimulate the immune system very strongly. Manufacturers include adjuvants in some vaccines, particularly vaccines using small parts of organisms or those produced using recombinant (genetic) technology, so that the vaccines can trigger enough immune response to prevent disease. People with weakened immunity, whether from age, disease, or medications, may especially benefit from adjuvants. Live vaccines, in general, do not require adjuvants.
How safe are vaccines?
Because vaccines are generally given to healthy people, including infants, it is important that they be very, very safe. While we might tolerate a side effect such as drowsiness in a medicine given to patients who are sick — knowing that the medicine will help make them well — we expect only the highest level of safety from vaccines. There have always been worries about vaccines, because they are biological substances and they stimulate immunity, but vaccines accepted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and administered to people in this country meet rigorous safety standards. The purpose of the VSC and of the Immunization Safety Office of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is to ensure that our vaccine supply is safe.
When a disease is common, and everyone knows how bad it is, then most people are grateful to have a vaccine to prevent it. But once the vaccine is introduced and it becomes rare to see the disease anymore, people do not necessarily realize how harmful the disease is. Some may become concerned about getting a vaccine — perhaps it might cause a fever or a sore arm — or question the need for immunization, since the disease is not in evidence. It is important to continue giving vaccines and to maintain a high level of coverage in society, because, if we don’t, these diseases will come back, as occurred with measles in Great Britain in the 1990s.
What vaccines should my child or I get and when?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides vaccine schedules for all ages.
As a busy provider, you probably wish you had more time to research specific answers to questions about immunizations from your patients or their families. The list below includes trusted websites, articles and other information that we hope you will find helpful in responding to your patients’ curiosity and concerns. This list is not meant to be exhaustive. We’ve included a more comprehensive list in our Resources section. But we hope this selection will address some of the key issues you are likely to encounter. Please contact us if you have other informational needs.
Reporting an Adverse Reaction to a Vaccine
The Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), a national vaccine safety surveillance program co-sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), is an important vehicle for reporting and analyzing adverse reactions to immunizations and for making information available to the public. If you believe that a patient has had a significant reaction to a vaccine, make a report quickly and easily online.
For Research Participants and Families
If you or a member of your family is participating in one of our clinical studies, we extend warm thanks for helping us advance scientific understanding of the safety and efficacy of vaccines.
Over the years, vaccines have prevented a huge number of illnesses and deaths. At the Kaiser Permanente Vaccine Study Center, we are thrilled to help develop new vaccines and conduct studies to ensure that vaccines are, and remain, safe. Your participation in this research helps maintain the health of our members, our nation, and the world. We deeply appreciate your commitment.
How can I contact my study nurse?
You can find contact information for your study nurse in the materials you received about the study.
What should I do if I think my child is having a bad reaction to an immunization?
During business hours, please call the study nurse at the number you received in the study materials. She will arrange appropriate care. After hours, on weekends and on holidays, please call your advice nurse. After you have spoken with the advice nurse, please also leave a message for your study nurse, who will contact you for further follow-up on the next business day.
Find more vaccine-related information online from the following organizations.
World Health Organization
United States Department of Health and Human Services
- National Vaccine Program Office (NVPO)
- National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP)
- Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Vaccines
- National Institutes of Health (NIH) Vaccine Research Center
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Vaccines and Immunizations
- Vaccine Safety
- Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS)
- Vaccine Safety Datalink (VSD)
- Clinical Immunization Safety Assessment (CISA) Network
- Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP)
- Immunization Schedule
- Johns Hopkins University Institute for Vaccine Safety
- Stanford University Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Vaccine Program
- Vanderbilt University Vaccine Research Program
- Vaccine Education Center at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia
Organizations, Societies, and Other
- Brighton Collaboration
- American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) – Immunization
- Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) – Immunization
- Immunization Action Coalition
- The Global Alliance for Vaccine and Immunization (GAVI)
- California Immunization Coalition (CIC)
- Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH) Vaccine Resource Library
- Vaccinate Your Baby