Vaccination and the killers of yesterday now overcome by modern medicine

It’s only been a little over fifty years since vaccinations became routine for the childhood killers like polio, measles, mumps and whooping cough.  People my age and older had no choice but to suffer through childhood infectious diseases given how effectively and quickly they spread through a community.

Most of us survived, subsequently blessed with life long natural immunity.  Some did not survive.  And I think we’ve forgotten that.

As a physician, I help enforce vaccination requirements for a state university.  A day doesn’t go by without my having a discussion with a prospective student (or more likely the student’s parent) about the necessity for our requirement for proof of  mumps, measles, rubella vaccination immunity.  I have been labeled a Nazi, a Communist, a pawn of the pharmaceutical industry and many more unprintable names because I happen to believe in the efficacy of modern vaccine to help keep a community free of infectious disease outbreaks that will kill people.

We have forgotten these are honest to goodness killers of healthy human beings.  We forget that unvaccinated children continue to die in developing countries for lack of access to vaccine.   Yet educated and well-meaning American parents make the decision daily to leave their children unvaccinated, believing they are doing the best thing for their children by protecting them from potentially rare and often unproven vaccine side effects.

I’ve had caring loving parents tell me that God will provide the needed immunity if their child gets sick so taking the risk of a vaccine is unnecessary.    Actually they are banking that everyone else will be vaccinated.  The problem is:  guess again.  There are now too many deciding that they are the ones who can remain vaccine-free.   Babies died in California this past year from becoming infected with whooping cough–in the year 2010– when this is a completely preventable illness.

I tell these parents God does provide  immunity — after suffering through a life threatening disease which threatens those who are unfortunately exposed.  He also provides immunity in the form of a vial of vaccine, a needle and syringe.  I don’t think any one of these parents would deny the life saving miracle of injectable insulin for their child diagnosed with diabetes, nor would they fail to strap their child into a car seat.  Vaccines are miracles and instruments of prevention too, but the rub is that we have to give them to healthy youngsters in order to keep them healthy.

As a society, or as clinicians, we simply don’t think about immunizations in the same way as we did in the fifties.  When I received my first DPT vaccination at the age of 4 months, my mother wrote in my baby book:

“Up most of the night with fever 104.5 degrees,  considered a good ‘take’ for the vaccine.”  She truly was relieved that it had made me sick,  as it meant that I would be safe if exposed to those killer diseases that were so common in the 1950s.  Now a febrile reaction like that would almost be considered grounds for a law suit.

I’m an old enough physician to have seen deaths from these diseases as well as the ravages of post polio paralysis, the sterility from mumps and deafness from congenital rubella.   My father nearly died from the mumps that I brought home from school when I was eight and he was in his early forties.   My sister-in-law almost didn’t pull through when she was an infant and contracted pertussis.  I’ve seen healthy people develop  encephalitis and pneumonia from chicken pox.    I’ve seen a healthy college student die of influenza within a week of getting ill.   There is an epidemic of fear in our society that is unwarranted: as Seth Mnookin, a journalist covering science topics wrote recently week in Newsweek and his upcoming book The Panic Virus, “If only there were a shot for irrational fears.”

I wish vaccines were perfect but they aren’t.   Nothing is.  I wish medications that are developed for treatment of some of these illnesses were perfect but we can’t depend on a guarantee of cure once sickened.   I wish our immune systems were perfect, but they too fail and people do die.

There will always be a new plague–history has demonstrated that over and over with the appearance of  HIV, SARS, Avian flu, or multidrug resistant tuberculosis.   There is plenty to keep our immune systems at the ready because we don’t yet have effective vaccines widely available.

There is simply no good reason to invite the old plagues back into our homes, our schools,  our blood streams, and onto our death certificates.   They deserve to be considered the killers of yesteryear now overcome by modern medicine–merely a footnote in the epidemiology history books.

Emily Gibson is a family physician who blogs at Barnstorming.

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