Saturday, September 17, 2011

Vaccines: We're in this Together

When he was five, my oldest brother spent a month in an iron lung in a hospital 45 minutes from my parents' home.  Have you ever seen an iron lung?



An iron lung is a negative pressure chamber that literally pushed air in and out of my brother's body.  Why?  Because the alternative was paralysis and maybe death from polio.  In the 1950s polio was the disease that made every mother terrified because it could strike without warning and spread like wildfire with no explanation or cure.  When the Salk vaccine was initially developed, my mom couldn't wait to get my then three year sister vaccinated.

When I was little, most kids suffered with measles, mumps, rubella and chicken pox.  In fact, there was a significant outbreak of rubella around the time I was born that resulted in an estimated 20,000 infants born with congenital rubella syndrome, with an additional 2,100 neonatal deaths and 11,250 miscarriages. Of the 20,000 infants born with congenital rubella syndrome, 11,600 were deaf, 3,580 were blind and 1,800 were mentally retarded.  Can you imagine how scared my mom was, especially when my brother contracted rubella when I was 6 weeks old?

People like me who had mumps, rubella and chicken pox as kids without complications were the lucky ones.  Adult men who get mumps frequently get testicular infections and adult women who contract chicken pox during pregnancy (because they weren't immunized or didn't have the disease) can have a child with birth defects.

So what's my point?  Vaccines have resulted in significant improvements in the quality of life throughout the world.  The risk of many significant and widespread diseases has all but disappeared.  In fact, we no longer vaccinate for smallpox because the disease has been eradicated.  Unfortunately there are many diseases that are virtually gone in the U.S. but still exist in the world:  polio, pertussis (whooping cough), diphtheria, chicken pox, mumps, measles, rubella and so many others.  These diseases are just an international flight away.

There is a movement to "exempt" children from routine childhood vaccines.  Here's the thing - if you choose not to vaccinate your child, I have no problem with you taking that risk with your child.  The problem is that there are others - people in my generation who don't have immunity because vaccines weren't available, infants who haven't been vaccinated, people with suppressed immune systems and more.  There have been specific examples of diseases returning when vaccinations were suspended - mumps on an Iowa college campus, pertussis in Sweden and the United Kingdom and various measles outbreaks.  Funny thing - of all of the arguments I've heard or read about the "risks" of vaccinations, I haven't seen one that disputes the fact that vaccines save hundreds of thousands of lives.  It's one thing to expose your children to diseases that may not be common today, but another to subject others to those diseases. Why do we want to bring back the fear our mothers and grandmothers experienced with their children?

Please - when you think about whether to vaccinate or not to vaccinate your child, please think about all of our children.

cindy