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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  • Riciu

    Though maybe i am not as old as you Kevin but, polio, measles, mumps and whooping cough was’t on my vaccine list when i was born (big laughter)…Eastern Europe you see is back in time with 50 years..just kidding.Of course polio, measles, mumps and whooping cough is also mandatory now in my country…it is sometimes strage to think and look back into the past and see that what killed near 25 million people in Euorpe now it is considered to be eradicated. Hope we will live long enough to see the same thing for HIV, but you know better, like i do aslo, what pharmaceutical gains and interests are there for not comming up with a vaccine/cure for HIV.That sort of interests were not present or were less present in the past. Best Regards. Richard MD

  • Dave Miller

    Excellent post. My mother was a polio survivor, having contracted the disease just a year or so before the Salk trials.

    I think that you have hit the nail squarely on the head that people are shunning vaccines primarily because they have not been exposed to the excessive burden of disease that existed prior to their widespread use. This is the piece we need to use to educate our patients.

  • Doc99

    Remember this post next time you hear health advice from Don Imus or Jenny McCarthy.

  • gerridoc

    I am on the same generation as the writer of this post, and my mother was an RN who had cared for many children who were stricken by infectious diseases in the 1940s and 50s. Society has forgotten how devastating these diseases can be. Very few people wish to remember the time in mid twentieth century when swimming pools were closed in the summer or families were quarantined for fear of polio.

    At seven years of age, I was very ill with the chicken pox. The family pediatrician (a sainted man) made 2 house calls to visit me. When the shingles vaccine became available, I made sure that our son was immunized.

    Unfortunately, those who make the most noise dominate the media and control discourse in this society.

  • Molly Ciliberti, RN

    Great post! I had both whopping cough and diptheria as an infant and nearly died. I too remember the fears of polio during the summer months (my grandfather had polio and lived his life walking in heavy braces) and knew people who had gotten measles while pregnant and subsequently had a child born blind with serious heart defects. The guy who published the now discredited article in The Lancet, was a man wanting money and fame, not the truth. People who believe what Jenny McCarthy, Playboy bunny and obvious user of silicone breast implants and other “cosmetic” procedures) says are listening to someone who has nothing intelligent to say about vaccines.

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