FALLS CHURCH, Va. — Airmen deploy around the world to many different continents, countries and environments. Assignments to these locations expose Airmen to unique health risks, including infectious diseases rarely seen in the U.S. Staying current with all required vaccinations is vital to ensuring Airmen are mission ready.
“Commanders need to know that their Airmen are ready to deploy,” said Col. James Mullins, Associate Corps Chief for Public Health in the Air Force Medical Service. “There are basic vaccines that everyone needs to be current on, like the annual flu vaccine and additional vaccines Airmen may need if they are deploying to certain parts of the world.”
Staying current with vaccines is a vital part individual medical readiness (IMR). Air Force regulations state that unit IMR is a command responsibility, but each Airmen must maintain their own individual requirements.
“It’s a matter of personal responsibility and duty,” said Mullins. “If you receive a notice that you need a vaccine, go get it done. It makes both you and your commander look good.”
The flu vaccine is especially key this time of year. Any Airman who has not had their annual flu shot by January 1 is no longer current on their IMR.
Vaccines have taken on an ever more important readiness role as U.S. forces deploy to more places around the world. Many other countries have lower vaccinations rates than the U.S. against common vaccine preventable diseases. This can make their populations, and in some cases their militaries, more vulnerable to diseases rarely seen in this country.
“When stationed in the U.S., Airmen enjoy many of the benefits of herd immunity. When the majority of the population is protected from a disease, it greatly reduces the chances of it occurring and spreading,” said Mullins. “Herd immunity may not exist when overseas. For example, some European countries see far more outbreaks of measles, mumps and other childhood diseases than the U.S. An outbreak, or even a few cases of one of these diseases, can affect a unit’s mission readiness.”
Recently, the U.S. has seen an increase in the number of outbreaks of highly communicable diseases that already have effective vaccines. Many times, even though people were vaccinated as children, immunity wanes over the years.
“That’s why herd immunity is such an important protection against these diseases,” said Mullins. “If a single Airman’s immunity has wanes but the rest of the unit is vaccinated, that herd immunity helps keep that Airman from getting sick. But if more and more people aren’t vaccinated, the risk to the individual and the unit goes up.”
Every day, Airmen work side by side with coalition allies from countries whose militaries have different immunization programs. Ensuring Airmen are vaccinated and immune prevents outbreaks.
“We’ve seen instances where other forces have outbreaks of communicable diseases where our forces didn’t,” said Mullins. “Our vaccine policies are a likely reason why. From a public health perspective, vaccines are one of the most successful health interventions ever created.”