Everyone wants what’s best for their children. We dress our kids warmly, teach them to wash their hands, and tell them not to eat slugs or lick the handle of the grocery store’s shopping cart. We feel awful when they’re sick, and wish there was something we could do to reduce their chances of ever contracting another disease.
There is something we can do. Vaccinations are one way to help keep kids healthy, and they’re far less costly than dealing with disease.
Smallpox is considered by some to be the most deadly of all diseases in history. Up to 35% of people who caught smallpox died from their illness. The pox left scars on those who survived, and many people were blinded by the disease. Today, however, we are lucky because the fight to eradicate smallpox was so successful that it’s no longer considered necessary to give this vaccine to children.* With diligent vaccination programs, we can eradicate other diseases, too.
Imagine a disease so feared and so deadly that parents don’t name their babies. Only after a child has gotten the disease and been lucky enough to survive will the child be named. That’s true of measles in some parts of the world. According to the World Health Organization, measles is the leading cause of vaccine-preventable death in young children. Hundreds of thousands of people die every year. Survivors can experience complications such as blindness, brain swelling, ear infection, pneumonia, and sterility. All this can be prevented with a simple vaccine. One dose is given at age 12-15 months, and a second dose is recommended around age 4-6.
Vaccine efforts around the world have seen similar results. WHO reports that in 2000, 733,000 died from measles. By 2008, that number had decreased to 164,000. In 2009-2010, unfortunately, vaccines were down again and measles cases rose dramatically. When a disease isn’t seen as a threat, people don’t always see the need to have their children immunized. In the U.S., the measles vaccine is combined to protect against measles, mumps, and rubella all in a single shot.
I’ve written about this recently. People can die from polio. Complications can be terrible for survivors. Although this disease is no longer common, we live in a small world. There have been recent cases of a single unvaccinated traveller contracting polio while on vacation, then returning home before symptoms developed and unknowingly spreading this contagious disease to others in the community. Prevention is simple with a series of four vaccination shots, given at ages 2 months, 4 months, 6-18 months, and 4-6 years.
Think of the Roaring ’20s: flappers and happy times after the conclusion of the first World War. Sadly, life isn’t wasn’t always as pictured in the movies; in that decade, the United States also saw 13,000-15,000 deaths per year from diphtheria. It’s a terrible disease. We tend to forget, but most people have heard at least a little about diphtheria; some of the traditions seen in the Iditarod are in commemoration of the 1925 serum run to Nome - a race against time due to a diphtheria outbreak. Thanks to vaccines, we no longer need to fear this deadly disease.
Whooping Cough (Pertussis)
Some people think that since this disease is worst in infants, adults don’t need to worry about it. Not true. Adults with whooping cough spread the disease to others, including infants. Last year in California, a number of babies died because they hadn’t been vaccinated yet. That horrible cough must have been terrifying for the parents to hear, knowing there was nothing they could do to help their babies.
I have a friend who had whooping cough as an adult a few years ago, and can testify that it’s no picnic for an adult to have the disease. Childhood vaccinations against whooping cough do not last forever. Boosters are required. Pertussis is one of three diseases included in a single vaccine (the other two being diphtheria and tetanus). The children’s vaccine is called DTaP (or DTP), and the adult boosters are called Tdap).
The goal of these (and other) vaccines is to give children a longer, healthier life. Vaccines work. They prevent disease and save thousands of lives every year. The question is, though, do they cause other problems? Are vaccines safe?
*The smallpox vaccine is still given to soldiers headed overseas. It is also given to people exposed to monkeypox. Read about smallpox & George Washington here.