A prophylactic vaccination is a selective exposure to a weakened or diluted form of an infectious agent to encourage a patient to form antibodies. If the patient is exposed to the infectious agent in the wild, the antibodies will prevent the onset of infection. Numerous conditions are preventable through vaccination. The elimination and reduction of vaccine-preventable illnesses like polio and smallpox has been a significant victory for public health.
In a prophylactic vaccination, the goal is to prevent the development of disease. This contrasts with a therapeutic vaccine used in the treatment of disease. Therapeutic applications are seen most commonly in cancer treatment, where a patient may receive a targeted vaccine to help the body attack a cancerous tumor. Such vaccines are beneficial for treatment but do not serve long-term goals of cancer prevention.
Prophylactic vaccination is recommended for all members of society, with some exceptions, by public health agencies around the world. Some vaccines cannot be universally administered because they pose risks; children with cancer, for example, cannot receive routine vaccinations because their immune systems will not be able to form antibodies and they could get very sick. Conditions like measles, mumps, tetanus, and rubella are routinely prevented through vaccination.
Other prophylactic vaccination may be recommended only when people are at particularly high risk of a disease. Older adults and people with a history of respiratory disease may get flu vaccines to prevent flu-related fatalities. Likewise, travelers may get extra vaccines to protect them against diseases not normally found in their homeland. A similar procedure can be seen in the military, where service members receive vaccines before deployment to keep them healthy in the field.
It is also possible in some cases to receive a prophylactic vaccination after exposure to an infectious agent to prevent the onset of full-blown disease. Rabies is a common candidate for this kind of vaccination. Rabies vaccines can be expensive and time-consuming, and thus are not recommended for the general population. In the event a person is bitten by an animal and there are concerns about rabies risks, the patient can receive a prophylactic vaccination.
Recommendations for prophylactic vaccinations are periodically updated. Patients can discuss which vaccines they need or could benefit from with their doctors. It is also important to keep up with booster shots, as vaccines do not last for life, and an outdated vaccination may not provide protection. Patients who are not sure about when they were last vaccinated can ask for a copy of their record.