What I Wish Everyone Knew About Vaccines

Written by Dr. Barbara Casper

As a physician working with underserved populations, I see dozens of people die from flu and flu-related complications every year. Because of this, I wanted to explain why I recommend the flu shot to many of my patients, and I recently wrote a post on the topic for MindBodyGreen.

I was surprised at the responses: Some assumed I was paid by drug companies (I’m not), and many expressed concerns about vaccines in general. I realized that there’s a lot of confusing information in the media about vaccines, so I wanted to share what we do know. I’ve also personally cared for people who have died of complications related to infectious diseases, which could have been prevented with vaccines, and I wanted to explain my thinking in case this information could save a life someday.

In the United States, there’s a growing objection to vaccines, and this is not a new phenomenon. In the 18th century, some religious groups felt that infectious diseases were sent from God to punish the sinful, and that preventing disease would be against God’s will.

In spite of this, many people continued to try to prevent devastating illness—even administering vaccines to themselves in order to establish that vaccines work. English physician Edward Jenner developed the smallpox vaccine in 1796, yet as late as 1967, there were between 10 million and 15 million people worldwide who contracted smallpox, and, since the disease claimed the lives of 25% of those infected, between 2.5 million and 3.75 million people died of smallpox in 1967.

Even though the vaccine was effective, there was still lack of access in some areas, as well as continued objections to vaccination among some people. Through effective inoculation, smallpox has become the first infectious disease to be eradicated; the last case in the United States was in 1949, and the last naturally occurring case in the world was in Somalia in 1977.

More recently, a British physician, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, raised concerns about the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR), theorizing that it put children at risk for developing autism. In an article published in The Lancet in 1998, he suggested a possible link between the administration of the vaccine and the development of autism.

Subsequently, the rate of vaccination in England dropped from more than 90% to a low of 80%, leaving many children at risk for potentially life-threatening illness. These findings were discredited in 2004 and formally retracted in 2010. Later it was found that Dr. Wakefield received more than £400,000 to help fund his research, paid for by litigants trying to drum up a lawsuit against vaccine manufacturers. The General Medical Council in Britain banned Wakefield from practicing medicine there and charged him with several counts, including professional misconduct and ethical violations. Nevertheless, his work continues to be promoted by celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy.

Earlier this year in Great Britain there was an outbreak of measles, resulting in a significant number of new cases and a death from measles pneumonia. There have also been outbreaks in the US among folks in three separate communities who have chosen not to be vaccinated. And recently, 10 new cases of polio were reported in Syria, with test results forthcoming on an additional 12 children. The country had an effective immunization program, but due to civil war, it was suspended. (On Monday, the Syrian government vowed to vaccinate all children to prevent the disease from spreading.) This means that people who are unvaccinated are at risk if they come into contact with a visitor from one of these countries who is harboring this disease.

My opinion, as a physician and a scientist, is that vaccines should be celebrated as a public health triumph. As a mother, I want my children to be protected from these diseases, which can be devastating and have lifelong consequences.

I suffered through the chickenpox, measles and rubella, and luckily — aside from a small scar on the side of my face — I experienced few lasting consequences. However, not everyone is so lucky — and you can’t predict accurately which babies will have naturally strong immune systems — so choosing natural immunity from infection does not seem like a wise move to me.

A common critique against vaccines is that there are real, documented side effects. Everything we do has a potential risk: riding in a car, crossing the street, and climbing on a ladder could all damage those who partake in these activities. Each day we make decisions based on the risk/benefit of each activity we perform and the risk associated with vaccination is extremely small compared to the benefits.

We live in a country where we're allowed to make decisions regarding our health, and each person is free to choose to not have her child vaccinated. While I don’t agree with that decision, I support each person’s right to make it.

I find it interesting that most of the people who are making these decisions for their children have actually been vaccinated themselves; they should understand that the risk to their child’s health if they contract this so-called “childhood illness” as an adult can be devastating.

I personally cared for a young man who died of overwhelming pneumonia from chicken pox. His family was devastated, as he left behind a wife and two young children.

As parents, we are constantly faced with making difficult decisions regarding our children’s health. I don’t think having a child die or face permanent impairment from a vaccine-preventable illness should be one of them in 2013.

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