A simple touch or a laugh can be enough to spread an infectious disease and trigger a major health crisis. Exposure to common viruses is unavoidable and vaccination is the strongest form of protection for every age.  While previously common childhood diseases have been greatly reduced, these vaccinations protect across the age spans. For example, shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox.

The chickenpox virus stays dormant in the body of those who have experienced the disease and can be activated years later. While the shingles vaccine is more than 90% effective at preventing shingles, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services currently predicts almost 1 in 3 people will get shingles in their lifetime. Individuals without the protection of vaccination can be unknowingly exposed to common viruses resulting in serious and even life-threatening medical crisis.

Linda Penisten, program manager for Great Plains QIN“Not even knowing that you are sick can be a deadly consequence for someone who is already fighting for their life. I encourage people to get their vaccines.  We never know what kind of chain reaction of events we can be starting or preventing,” shared Linda Penisten, RN, OTR/L, program manager for Great Plains Quality Innovation Network (QIN).

Before the chickenpox vaccine was available, Penisten saw first-hand the impact of unintended exposure. While her story is specific to a time and a virus, the dangers of exposure still apply to a wide range of common viruses.

“My mother was dying from a rare liver disease in an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) hours away from us. Our two-year-old was very close to his grandmother as she was his caretaker while I was at work. I knew our little guy might not ever see her again so I arranged a visit. As I held him, he only looked at her.   And then she reached out to him and touched her finger to his. Her finger glowed with the oximeter: an “ET” movie moment he was too young to understand.

As I drove back home with him, I was glad he had time with her before she died. However, in the morning I awoke to a two-year-old with chicken pox and I knew that meant he was contagious when he was in the ICU. He had no symptoms the day before and we had not been around anyone with chickenpox. I knew I had to call the ICU and report the incident. I had terrible guilt that my child probably exposed my mother and others who were already compromised.

The situation could have been grave for anyone who had not had chickenpox before. The unit was quarantined and followed infection control protocols and investigations to see what patients in the unit were at risk.  The last good –bye for my child might prevent others from saying their good-bye or, worse yet, create a forever good-bye.

I tell this story so others can reflect on the chain of events that occur due to lack of a vaccine. I will never know what may have happened to others in the ICU that period of time, and I only pray the consequences were simple inconveniences and not life-changing events or good-byes.”

Great Plains QIN is actively working with providers, patients, partners and stakeholders to implement best practices to increase immunization rates for influenza, pneumococcal disease and herpes zoster. Register for the upcoming Learning and Action Network event, A Shot in the Arm for Immunization Registry, on September 24 from 12:00 PM – 1:00 PM CT, and find resources, tools and contact information for immunization and other quality initiatives on the Great Plains QIN website.