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In college or university, more than just your class schedule and study habits shift—for many students, post-secondary is a time to start taking control of your own health care. Instead of Mom or Dad calling the shots, it’s increasingly likely that you’re the one making your doctor appointments and keeping track of your health history.

A major part of that is your vaccination history. While most vaccinations are recommended and sometimes required (especially for students involved in the health care fields) before you hit campus, you should still be aware of yearly doses like the flu shot, boosters for vaccines you got when you were younger, or first-time doses you might still need.

Vaccines are one of the best possible ways to protect your health and the health of those around you—plus, they can prevent you from taking the blame for spreading around that nasty flu. Other good news? Vaccines are easy to get.

Student perspective

“Vaccines eliminate the risk of having to worry about getting those illnesses. You should still take precautions, but you’re treating your body right by giving it the weapons it needs to fight off diseases.”
—Bailey P., fourth-year undergraduate, University of New Brunswick

We want to make the immunization process as painless as possible, so here’s what you need to know about the most important vaccines to have while in university—what they are, why they’re so necessary, and how to get them.

The influenza (flu) vaccine

Why you need it

Despite how commonly we hear about it, the flu isn’t something you want to mess around with (most of the time, when people think they have the flu, it’s actually a less serious viral infection). “Although the burden of influenza can vary from year to year, it’s estimated that influenza and its complications cause an average of 12,200 hospitalizations and approximately 3,500 deaths each year in Canada,” says Dr. Julie Bettinger, Associate Professor, Department of Pediatrics, Vaccine Evaluation Centre, University of British Columbia and British Columbia Children’s Hospital.

More likely than landing you in the hospital, getting the flu could really set you back in class. On average, the flu lasts about eight days, and during that time you’ll be more likely to miss lectures and hit up campus health services, according to a 2010 study published in PLOS One. Research published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases found that 46 percent of students did poorly on an assignment after getting the flu.

When researchers from the PLOS One study modeled the effect of the vaccine, they found that if just 20 percent of people on campus got their flu shot, the number of people who would get the flu that season would drop from 69 percent (if no one got vaccinated) to less than 50 percent. The researchers also found that if just 60 percent of people on campus got vaccinated, less than 1 percent of the campus population would be likely to end up with the flu. This process is called herd immunity—and it works.

Key facts about the seasonal flu vaccine

The Public Health Agency of Canada recommends everyone get a flu vaccine every year. “The circulating strains change each year and a flu shot from last year won’t protect against this year’s strains,” says Dr. Bettinger. Healthy students should be getting the flu shot too, she says. “The shot actually works better in healthy people, so if students get the shot, they’re more likely to be protected against an infection and less likely to spread it.” That’s important because on campus, the virus can spread crazy fast. “The risk of exposure is very high in the student population,” says Dr. Shelly McNeil, Clinical Investigator at the Canadian Centre for Vaccinology in Nova Scotia. “Preventing influenza in places like universities can only be accomplished by having the majority of people vaccinated.”

Getting the flu shot will also help protect the very young and the very old—such as kids or grandparents you’ll see when you head home for break. “The risk of complications is greater for seniors 65 years and older, very young children, and people who have lung (such as asthma) or heart diseases, certain chronic health problems (such as diabetes), or weakened immune systems,” says Dr. Bettinger.

When to get it

Every year, as soon as it becomes available, which is usually September–January (and sometimes later).

Student perspective

“The flu vaccine reduces the risk of flu and protects you—and the people around you, too.”
—Phyllis W., fourth-year graduate student, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, British Columbia

How it works

The flu vaccine covers the three or four strains most likely to land you in bed with chills, aches, and a fever. Each year, the experts predict which strains will be the most common and come up with the flu shot formula that will protect against them. The vaccine is currently available as both an injection and a nasal spray.

The flu vaccine will not give you the flu (no matter how much that girl in class swears she got sick from her flu shot). The vaccine works by causing your body to develop antibodies about two weeks after you get it—so if you do get sick after getting your shot, that means you were already exposed to the germs or were exposed in that two-week window. “The flu shot has protein in it that’s [similar to] the protein in the influenza virus. Your immune system responds to that and develops antibodies, and the antibodies protect you if you’re exposed to that strain of influenza later,” says Dr. Bonnie Henry, Deputy Provincial Health Officer for the Province of British Columbia and Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of British Columbia.

How to get it

Flu season lasts from fall to spring, but if you haven’t gotten vaccinated yet, you still can (and should). Check in with your on-campus health centre or your health care provider to get your seasonal flu vaccine. You can also find the vaccine at most community clinics and pharmacies. Make sure you check with your provider before you go—some insurance companies require you to get the vaccine from your doctor (not a pharmacy) for the cost to be covered.

Find a health clinic offering the flu vaccine in your province or territory

Patient receiving vaccination

The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine

Why you need it

“The HPV vaccine is the first vaccine that protects against cancer of the cervix,” says Dr. Pierre-Paul Tellier, Family Physician, CLCS de Côte-des-Neiges at McGill University in Quebec. “Almost all of the cancers of the cervix in females are caused by HPV, and it’s also directly linked to several other cancers [some of which affect males] including the pharynx, anus, penis, and vulva.” While some HPV strains do go away on their own, some strains can lead to cancer or genital warts. There are currently two HPV vaccines being administered in Canada: Gardasil® and Cervarix®. Gardasil® is recommended for women and men aged 9–26. Cervarix® is used for women only, through age 25. It’s a super-important shot to protect both men and women.

Student perspective

“I strongly believe in the benefits of the HPV vaccine, since it’s not a highly adaptable disease and it prevents cancer.”
—Jai C., fourth-year undergraduate, University of Victoria, British Columbia

So what exactly is HPV? Technically, it’s a group of over 100 related viruses that are mainly spread through sexual skin-to-skin contact, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). HPV can cause bumpy warts on or near the genitals, and at least 13 strains of the virus are known to cause cancer.

More than 70 percent of sexually active men and women in Canada are expected to get HPV at some point in their lives, according to Health Canada. Luckily, about 90 percent of HPV infections go away on their own within two years, according to WHO, but the vaccine is still very important. “The vaccine can help protect against the nine types of HPV most commonly linked to some cancers and genital warts,” says Dr. Divya Patel, Associate Professor of Gynecology at the University of Texas. “The HPV vaccine is preventative care, which means that it’s meant to protect you before the protection becomes necessary,” adds Lizzy Appleby, Social Worker and Youth Program Manager at Angles Reproductive Healthcare Clinic in Illinois. “It won’t make any STIs [sexually transmitted infections] you already have go away, and it won’t cause an STI if you don’t have one.”

While it’s true that your risk for getting HPV goes up as your number of sexual partners increases, someone who has only had sex with one partner can still contract HPV if their partner has ever been exposed, according to the Canadian Cancer Society. Getting the HPV vaccine doesn’t depend on whether or not you’re currently sexually active. In fact, the best time to be immunized is before you’re sexually active, says Dr. Henry: “This means you haven’t yet been exposed to these viruses that can cause cancers in both men and women.” Even if you’ve never been sexually active and don’t plan on being for a long time, getting vaccinated is a vital part of preventing serious health issues down the road. “The HPV vaccine is very safe and effective and will protect you for your future,” Dr. Henry says.

When to get it

While the vaccination is recommended for preteens (preferably at 11 or 12), it’s not too late if you haven’t gotten it. “Catch-up vaccination is recommended all the way up to age 21 for males and age 26 for females,” says Dr. Patel. Men who have sex with men, transgender individuals, and those with compromised immune systems (such as from HIV) can also get the vaccine through age 26.

How to get it

If you’re not sure if you’ve gotten the vaccine (or the full series of shots), start by asking your parent or contacting your pediatrician for your immunization record. If you still need the vaccine, here’s how to get it:

  • Many campus health centres offer the HPV vaccine, so that’s a smart and easy place to start.
  • You can also get the vaccine at many local pharmacies or health centres. Find a clinic in your province.
  • Depending on your province, you may qualify for a free vaccination. For example, in Ontario, the shot is free for women and men in grades 8–12. If you don’t qualify for a free vaccination, the series of three shots will cost around $540 if pay out of pocket (meaning without insurance), according to the Canadian Cancer Society. However, many health insurance companies cover the cost. Prices may vary at your doctor’s office or campus health clinic, so ask them directly.

Vaccine finder

Meningococcal conjugate vaccine (MenACWY)

Why you need it

The MenACWY vaccine prevents against meningococcal disease (also called meningitis or bacterial meningitis), a very serious and sometimes deadly infection of the brain and spinal cord. It starts with flu-like symptoms (fever, headache, nausea, stiffness in the neck) that rapidly get worse. Some cases can become life-threatening within just a few hours.

Luckily, it’s not super common anymore—Canada sees an average of about 200 cases a year—thanks to the success of the vaccine. But meningococcal disease is still highly contagious, says Dr. Bettinger. “It’s spread from person to person by coughing, sneezing, or close face-to-face contact. It can also be spread through saliva via activities such as kissing or sharing of food, or items such as drinks, cigarettes, lipsticks, water bottles, mouth guards used for sports, or mouthpieces of musical instruments,” she says. Basically, it can spread like wildfire in close quarters—aka residence halls and crowded classrooms. It’s incredibly important to be immunized.

Student perspective

“It’s the best preventative method to avoid the disease.”
—Keumjoo N., fourth-year undergraduate, University of Victoria, British Columbia

When to get it

The MenACWY vaccine is recommended for all first-year college and university students age 21 and younger who plan to live in residence halls (though others can still receive the vaccine through age 23). This vaccine is so important that most universities actually require it as part of your college admission in the US. College and university students have a higher risk of getting bacterial meningitis than other young adults, which is why it’s recommended even if your school or state doesn’t require it.

Health Canada recommends getting the shot between the ages of 11 and 12 if you haven’t already been vaccinated. “Many students may have already received this vaccine and should check with their family doctor to determine if they need it,” Dr. Bettinger says. If you did get the MenACWY vaccination and it was before your 16th birthday, HealthLink BC recommends getting a booster shot before heading to campus for maximum protection.

There’s also a second type of vaccine—serogroup B meningococcal vaccines that might be necessary if you have certain health conditions putting you at greater risk (such as a damaged or removed spleen)—so talk to your doctor to make sure you’re covered.

How to get it

Because this vaccine is part of the routine childhood immunization schedule, you should be able to find it at your family doctor’s office. Campus health centres, federally funded community health centres, and many pharmacies also provide the vaccine. “Check with the immunization provider to find out the cost of the vaccine,” says Dr. Bettinger.

Vaccine finder

Tdap

Why you need it

The Tdap vaccine offers triple threat protection against tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis—three diseases that are rare but serious.

Tetanus, which you can get when bacteria gets into cuts, kills between 10­–80 percent of unvaccinated people who contract it, says Health Canada, and causes severely painful muscle tightening and stiffness. However, it’s pretty rare these days—only six tetanus-related deaths have been reported since the year 2000 in Canada. Diphtheria, while extremely rare, isn’t something to mess with—it can cause breathing problems, heart failure, paralysis, and even death. Pertussis—better known as whooping cough—is slightly more common. It can cause severe coughing spells—we’re talking coughing so hard you can fracture your own ribs—that are grave enough to land 2 percent of adolescents who contract it in the hospital with serious complications.

The vaccine has all but eradicated these scary diseases (there were only about 42 cases of tetanus in Canada between 2000 and 2013, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, and less than five cases of diphtheria are reported each year), but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to get vaccinated. “Thankfully tetanus and diphtheria are very rare these days in Canada because of our immunization programs, but pertussis continues to cause sometimes quite severe illness, particularly in young people,” says Dr. Henry. Double-check and make sure you got the shot.

Student perspective

“If we have access to vaccines, we should take advantage of them.”
—Hannah S., fourth-year undergraduate, University of Victoria, British Columbia

How and when to get it

Like the HPV vaccine and MenACWY, the Tdap vaccine is recommended for 11- and 12-year-olds, but if you didn’t get it as a preteen, you should still get it ASAP, according to HealthLink BC. After you’ve had your Tdap vaccine, you’ll need a Td booster shot (to renew your protection against tetanus and diphtheria) every 10 years. “The effectiveness of the vaccine can decrease over time, so it’s important to get that booster shot to ensure you’re fully protected,” says Dr. Natasha Crowcroft, Chief, Applied Immunization Research and Evaluation, Public Health Ontario.

Again, start with your campus health centre or current health care provider. You can also check out the local pharmacy or clinic. As far as cost, you should be covered. “In Canada, the Tdap vaccine is part of a publicly funded immunization program and is free of charge as part of your routine vaccination schedule,” says Dr. Crowcroft.

Vaccine finder

Female patient talking with male doctor

Vaccine side effects and safetyAll vaccines can have some side effects—usually mild redness or swelling around the site of the shot (Tdap tends to leave you with a sore arm). You might also get a mild headache or flu-like symptoms right after getting a vaccine, so make sure to ask the health care provider giving you the vaccination what to expect. “If a serious reaction occurs, it’ll likely happen within a few minutes to a few hours after the vaccination,” says Dr. Crowcroft. “For that reason, people are encouraged to stay in the office for about 15 minutes after a vaccination to monitor for any signs of serious side effects.”

However, all of these vaccines have been through rigorous testing. There’s absolutely no scientific evidence that these vaccines cause diseases or serious side effects (such as autism), according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

It’s important to remember that any small side effects you might experience are nothing compared to the massive, science-backed benefits you’ll get by getting vaccinated. The bottom line: Staying on top of your shots is a super-easy way to boost your health and help protect your community.

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Article sources

Lizzy Appleby, MSW, Youth Program Manager, Angles Reproductive Healthcare Clinic, Illinois.

Julie Bettinger, PhD, MPH, Associate Professor, Department of Pediatrics, Vaccine Evaluation Centre, University of British Columbia and British Columbia Children’s Hospital.

Natasha Crowcroft, MSc, MD, MRCP, FFPH, Chief, Applied Immunization Research and Evaluation, Public Health Ontario.

Bonnie Henry, MD MPH FRCPC, Deputy Provincial Health Officer, Province of British Columbia and Associate Professor of Medicine, University of British Columbia. 

Shelly McNeil, Clinical Investigator, Canadian Centre for Vaccinology, Nova Scotia.

Divya Patel, PhD, Assistant Professor, Texas Collaborative for Healthy Mothers and Babies (an affiliate of the University of Texas System).

Pierre-Paul Tellier, Family Physician, CLCS de Côte-des-Neiges at McGill University in Quebec.

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