By Robert Brayden, MD
The medical world has made huge strides in the ability to protect children from vaccine-preventable diseases, yet we cannot forget how vaccine-preventable diseases once affected children and their families. With the resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases and outbreaks affecting our own communities, it is more important than ever to maintain our efforts to encourage good health through immunization. Immunizations keep Colorado kids healthy.
In the 30-plus years I have spent caring for children, I have witnessed first-hand the landmark achievement of vaccines and their ability to prevent suffering, hospitalization and death in our children. As a pediatric resident in the 1980s, I will never forget an overnight shift during which a baby was flown by helicopter to The Children’s Hospital. The baby was very ill with a type of bacteria that had infected his bloodstream. Even today, I vividly recall how the young father, through tears, watched his baby die from disease. The killer bacterium was Haemophilus influenza type B. Just months later, the Haemophilus influnzae type B (Hib) vaccine was approved and recommended for children. Hib became another vaccine-preventable disease babies and their families would, fortunately, not have to experience.
Information collected from hospitals around the United States clearly shows that Hib and other now vaccine-preventable diseases have declined dramatically following the introduction of vaccines. Up until the 1980s, Hib infected one out of 200 children under the age of 5 in the United States, and there were an estimated 20,000 cases of Hib each year. As soon as the vaccine was introduced in 1985, Hib cases diminished. With regular vaccination, the number of Hib cases in children under 5 dropped more than 98 percent. By 2003, there were 259 Hib cases in children under 5 in the United States.
Many other vaccine-preventable diseases have shown similar drops in number of cases. The decline in Hib cases and other vaccine-preventable diseases is not due to better hand-washing or any other cultural factor; the decline is directly related to the success of vaccination
Vaccines, which are extremely safe, are now routinely used to protect children against 16 diseases before the age of 2. In fact, vaccines are so safe that the very rare risk of serious reaction to a vaccine is difficult to calculate. It is true that minor reactions can occur from receiving vaccine (e.g., soreness or redness at the injection site). However, not vaccinating a child is not a risk-free choice. A child can become seriously sick if not protected from vaccine-preventable diseases. In recent months, an unvaccinated baby traveling in Colorado died of Pertussis or whooping cough, even though the child had excellent medical care once the disease was recognized. Vaccination could have prevented this family’s tragic loss.
When a disease is finally eradicated, or wiped off the map — as smallpox was in the 1970s — we will be able to stop vaccination against that disease. I hope to see the day when no person anywhere around the globe is at risk of getting polio or measles. Until that day, however, we need to continue prevention effort through vaccines. Our world is just too mobile to take the chance of letting a disease resurface in our communities.
It is often difficult to discern which vaccination information sources are reliable and credible. Trustworthy resources should come from scientific studies, be openly published, and be reviewed and commented upon by other experts in the field. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a reliable location for information about vaccination. I believe that the people working there want what is best for parents and their children.
Vaccines can help to build a world that is better for children and families. Please make a careful and informed choice about vaccines for your child and your community. For more information, visit the Colorado Children’s Immunization Coalition www.childrensimmunization.org.
About the writer: Robert Brayden is president of the board of the Colorado Children’s Immunization Coalition and a pediatrician at The Children’s Hospital and the University of Colorado School of Medicine