I remember as a child in the late 1940’s running away from our home in New York City in the summer. My family made sure that my sister and I were not there during July and August. I thought it was because of the hot, humid weather, but it wasn’t. I did not understand it then, but I do now.
It was called the “Polio season,” and we were afraid of it.
Medical students today are taught about polio but strictly as a historical note. There are no more iron lungs or people being crippled by the polio virus. Why? Because of mass vaccination programs and herd immunity.
A patient "lives" in an iron lung after being paralyzed by polio. Photo Courtesy of Author.
Herd immunity works this way: When a percentage of the population has been vaccinated, they are immune to certain diseases. This provides a measure of protection for those who are unimmunized and therefore susceptible. Simply put, the volume of immunized people makes it harder for any contagion to spread. Vaccination breaks the chains of passage of the infection. The infected person is more likely to contact an immunized person than someone who could contract the disease.
The greater the proportion of individuals who are vaccinated, the less chance a disease has to spread.
How many of today's practicing doctors have seen a case of diphtheria, meningococcal meningitis, polio, tetanus, sterility after mumps, or a rubella baby? I have but I am quite old (okay, senior, or better, experience.).
The following is a list of currently available vaccines. Speaking as a physician, I am overjoyed that my medical students might never see any of these diseases. As a patient, think about the terrible diseases that you are unlikely to experience if you get vaccinated.
- Hemophilus influenza type b
- Hepatitis A
- Herpes zoster (shingles)
- Human papilloma virus (HPV)
- Influenza – only some forms
- Meningococcal infections, especially meningitis
- Pneumococcal infections
- Varicella (chickenpox, with some protection from smallpox)
The following are the arguments I have heard voiced against mass vaccination: don’t work; complications; misinformation, and unnecessary.
A nurse uses a syringe to prepare an injection of the combined Measles Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccination. (Photo: GEOFF CADDICK/AFP/Getty Images)
Those who say vaccinations don’t work need to review medical history as well as reams of hard medical data that show the drastic decline in diseases for which there are vaccines. Some others in the “don’t work” group point to vaccinated people who do get the disease, such as pertussis or measles.
Ask any father of a daughter (I am one) if he wants her to run the risk of cervical cancer or have HPV vaccination? That’s a no brainer.
There is no such thing as risk-free medication, vaccine, treatment, or therapy. Every medical intervention carries some degree of risk and always some cost. Vaccines may be 98 or even 99 percent effective but that means one or two percent aren’t protected or have a complication. When you are talking about 300 million people, one percent means 3 million.
However, even when a vaccines does not completely prevent the disease, say pertussis or measles, the illness that patient gets is much less severe than it would have been without vaccination.
Recent outbreaks of measles and pertussis do not indicate that vaccination doesn’t work. Sorry for the double negative. Ask older practicing physicians. They will say that the patients are nowhere near as sick today as they were forty years ago, and there are many, many fewer patients compared to outbreaks before vaccination.
There was a flurry of misinformation promulgated, for instance what was promulgated by actress Jenny McCarthy and “substantiated" by that medical expert, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). They claimed there was direct causal link between vaccination in childhood and autism later in life.
In all honesty, there is some suggestive evidence, although it is mostly weak and circumstantial. It is easy to fall into the Fundamental Attribution Error, saying that statistical association means causation. It doesn’t. Just because A and B are associated in some way does not mean that A caused B. Further, it is almost impossible to “prove” a negative, i.e., that vaccination doesn't cause autism.
Much more important, even if vaccination does increase the risk of autism, the benefits to the general population greatly outweigh that risk.
There are some complications that have been scientifically linked to certain vaccines. For example, Guillain-Barré syndrome–a very serious neurologic disorder–has been associated with meningococcal vaccination. The incidence of this complication is around one in 150,000. You need to see just one case of meningococcal meningitis (I have) to scream, “preventing this is worth any risk.”
Finally, there are those who claim vaccination is unnecessary. They look at the absence of polio or smallpox and say, “These are dead issues. Why do we need to vaccinate?” They use the very success of mass vaccination to discontinue it.
Dangerous pathogens such as polio, smallpox, meningococcus, etc. are not dead and gone. They are just suppressed. They are still out there in the environment. If we let up our guard and stop vaccinating, we could again see children paralyzed by polio or babies who are blind and deaf, with defects in both brain and heart secondary to German measles (rubella).
And please remember, “Vaccination isn’t just for children. ” Ask any adult with the burning pain of shingles, coughing up a lung in an ICU with pneumococcal pneumonia, or a woman with a rubella baby.
Dr. Deane Waldman, author of “The Cancer in Healthcare,” was a practicing pediatric cardiologist for 37 years and formerly was Division Chief at University of Chicago. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of the New Mexico Health Insurance Exchange (NMHIX). His opinions, which are in concert with the American Academy of Pediatrics, do not necessarily reflect the Board of NMHIX.
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