How Nurses Help Save Lives With Vaccines

Alexa Davidson, MSN, RN
Updated May 27, 2022
    Vaccines are one of the most important ways to promote public health. Learn how nurses can save lives through vaccine education and administration.
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    If you’re a nurse who has administered a vaccine, congratulations — you just helped save a life! Vaccines limit the spread of disease and prevent people from contracting debilitating illnesses. They’re one of the most cost-effective preventative health strategies we use in modern health care.

    Nurses play a key role in vaccine administration beyond giving shots. Find out how nurses save lives by promoting public health and building trust in communities.

    Nurses’ Role in Vaccines and Patient Education

    Nurses are role models for health in the public. According to provision 5 of the Nursing Code of Ethics, nurses must first practice personal wellness to promote public health. Millions of nurses demonstrated this when the COVID-19 vaccine first became available. As nurses stepped forward to become inoculated, they sent a message that the vaccine is safe, effective, and crucial for stopping the spread of the disease.

    Shelley Burke, DNP, is a registered nurse and full-time faculty at the University of California Irvine. A nurse with nearly four decades of experience, Burke has spent much of her career educating patients about preventative health strategies, including vaccines.

    She says it’s up to healthcare professionals to spread quality health information. Nurses can help patients by dispelling myths or misinformation available online.

    Burke says nurses should encourage patients to gather vaccine-related information from credible sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO). These organizations use a process of medical research that’s peer-reviewed and approved by subject matter experts.

    In addition to quality resources, nurses can provide one-on-one education to patients. Nurses can help patients make informed decisions by providing education on:

    • Vaccine efficacy and safety
    • Vaccine benefits
    • Myths about vaccines

    Burke says nurses should “be the voice of healthcare awareness and proactive treatment to minimize the spread of diseases.”

    How Nurses Provide Public Health Education

    To educate patients about public health situations like disease outbreaks, nurses must be kept up to date on health research themselves. They’re responsible for educating patients about how diseases behave, like how they spread and attack the body.

    Nurses also teach patients how vaccines work and why they’re important for stopping the spread of disease.

    “By remaining knowledgeable about the importance and process of necessary vaccinations, nurses can educate patients on vaccines’ efficacy and safety,” Burke says.

    Burke encourages nurses to use their authority to promote preventative health and provide vaccine education in:

    • Schools
    • Hospitals
    • Clinics
    • Organizations

    Addressing Health Misinformation

    How many times in recent years have you heard different information about vaccines? With constantly changing news and conflicting information available online, it’s no wonder the public has reservations about getting vaccinated.

    A 2020 study conducted in the United States sought to determine the root of health misinformation. Experts considered psychological factors that could lead to the spread of false information online. The study looked at emotional factors like confirmation bias, which is when someone searches a topic until their theory is proven correct.

    The study found a pattern that leads to healthcare mistrust. When individuals are repeatedly exposed to conflicting information, they begin to believe quality sources are not credible. This can lead to behavior changes like not seeking healthcare or making unsafe decisions.

    Health mistrust causes poor provider-patient relationships and can make people sick. Nurses must recognize knowledge gaps in the public and use their authority to keep patients healthy. Misinformation and mistrust has been even more prevalent since the COVID-19 pandemic.

    “With their dual roles as educators and care providers, nurses have the unique advantage of influencing healthcare education that can lead to informed decision-making,” Burke says.

    The Roots of Vaccine Hesitation

    The WHO defines vaccine hesitancy as “the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines.”

    The spread of false health information online is largely to blame for vaccine hesitancy. With the spread of conspiracy theories and inaccurate scientific facts, it’s impossible to control the information people share with one another.

    “Hesitancy surrounding vaccines comes from not fully understanding their use and, in other cases, skepticism of the healthcare system,” Burke says.

    Healthcare skepticism existed long before the days of the internet or COVID-19. Researchers attribute the Tuskegee Syphilis Study to healthcare mistrust dating back to the 1930s.

    In this 40-year-long government study, African American men in Alabama were intentionally denied treatment for syphilis so that researchers could study its natural progression. Participants died under the impression they were receiving treatment.

    Burke discusses the lasting implications of unethical medical practices.

    “That study and other atrocious healthcare practices towards African Americans remain a concern and a hesitancy to believe in some health treatment, such as vaccines,” she says.

    Healthcare professionals and researchers have spent decades improving ethical practices to rebuild trust in vulnerable populations. However, vaccine hesitancy remains widespread today.

    It’s crucial nurses consider the roots of mistrust in the healthcare system when promoting vaccines and public health education.

    3 Reasons Why Vaccinations Are Important

    Nurses save lives by administering vaccines, but for many patients, the real challenge is showing up to receive the inoculation in the first place.

    Patients and parents or guardians may express vaccine hesitancy for a number of reasons. As a nurse, you can help patients make informed decisions with science-backed facts.

    Here’s how you can educate patients on why getting the vaccine is important to protect themselves and others.

    1. Vaccines Prevent Debilitating Illness

    The CDC has established a recommended vaccination schedule to help protect individuals against infectious diseases throughout their lives.

    Thanks to vaccines, diseases like polio are no longer widespread — and we’ve prevented the debilitating effects of many other diseases.

    “There has been a decrease or nonexistence of many deadly or crippling diseases due to the benefits of vaccines,” Burke says.

    Vaccines help protect us against serious diseases such as:

    • COVID-19
    • Influenza
    • Measles
    • Shingles
    • Rubella
    • Chickenpox
    • Certain cancers

    2. Vaccines Prevent the Spread of Disease

    Vaccines have been proven to stop the spread of disease, as we’ve seen with the COVID-19 pandemic.

    “The evidence of vaccines’ safety and efficacy is seen currently in this worldwide pandemic,” Burke says. “A body protected by vaccines saves us time and money spent recovering from an illness.”

    3. Vaccines Are Safe

    After decades of research and surveillance, vaccines have been proven safe and effective, with minimal side effects. The CDC monitors vaccine safety by performing safety research, monitoring reactions, and watching for adverse reactions in the public.

    Parents or guardians may express uncertainty about vaccinating their children. If you work in pediatrics, use the CDC’s guidelines for having conversations about vaccines with parents.

    How Do Vaccines Work?

    There are an estimated 380 trillion viruses living on and inside the human body, and our bodies are experts at fighting them off. However, certain germs may lead to serious illness.

    For example, a person infected with the human coronavirus may contract the disease process known as COVID-19. The most effective way to stop the spread of COVID-19 is by getting vaccinated. The CDC recommends everyone above 5 years old get the COVID-19 vaccine.

    “Vaccines work by teaching our immune system to recognize certain viruses. After receiving a vaccine, our body will be more prepared to fight back,” Burke says.

    When a vaccinated person is exposed to the offending virus, they’re less likely to get sick. If they do, the symptoms might be less severe.

    Burke explains that vaccines are made from small amounts of “weakened or dead germs” that introduce a threat to our immune system. With the right information, our immune systems use the correct equipment to fight off the virus.

    And with the right health education, patients can make safe decisions for themselves. Nurses save lives by helping patients understand how vaccines work.

    Vaccine Frequently Asked Questions

    Nurses educate patients about vaccines, so they’re comfortable making life-changing health decisions. Here are some common questions patients may ask nurses about vaccines.

    Can Vaccines Be Mixed?

    Yes, patients can receive one vaccine and be boosted with another, as long as they’ve waited the recommended amount of time. The National Institutes of Health states:

    “Mixing vaccines may enhance the immune response, and it increases flexibility for when people need a booster dose, but doses of the vaccine they first received are not available.”

    Where Are Vaccines Made?

    Vaccines are made of antigens and preservatives. The antigen is the particle that causes an immune response. This is either made from tiny particles of the germ itself or a weakened germ that isn’t a threat.

    Why Are Vaccines Important for COVID-19?

    The COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective. Getting vaccinated helps control the spread of COVID-19 and keeps people out of the hospital. The COVID-19 vaccine prevents serious illness or death.

    What Vaccines Do I Need Before Traveling?

    Depending on where you’re going, you may need to protect yourself against illnesses native to the area. Find out which vaccines you need before traveling. You may need to be protected against illnesses you’re not exposed to at home like:

    • Cholera
    • Typhoid
    • Japanese encephalitis

    You may be required to show proof of a COVID-19 vaccine when traveling. Check each country’s requirements before international travel. Some countries require a COVID-19 vaccination, while others require a negative COVID-19 test to enter the country.

    Whether you’re traveling within the U.S. or internationally, the CDC recommends checking the area’s COVID-19 situation before planning your travel.

    Meet Our Contributor

    Portrait of Shelley Burke, DNP, Assistant Clinical Professor

    Shelley Burke, DNP, Assistant Clinical Professor

    Shelley Burke, DNP, is a registered nurse and full-time faculty at the University of California, Irvine. Burke’s career spans almost four decades, starting as a bedside nurse in Texas. Burke established her career in several specialties, such as pediatrics, adult medical-surgical, women’s health, and labor and delivery.