Vaccine-Preventable Diseases: Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind?

May 10, 2012

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I am a part of a generation of parents who have rarely, and in most cases never, encountered a vaccine-preventable disease. Polio, mumps, rubella and Hib meningitis are all relics of the past. And what is out of sight is often out of mind.

After all, how can a generation who has never experienced a national epidemic of polio or seen thousands of children born with congenital rubella syndrome understand how devastating such diseases are? And if we can’t understand how devastating they are then how can we appreciate the value of the vaccines that prevent them?

Sadly, we may become a generation that brings these relics out of the past and into the present. Slowly but surely, vaccine-preventable diseases are re-appearing.

Let’s take pertussis, for instance. Many states have seen increasing rates of this devastating disease — just 5 months into 2012 and 7,161 cases have been reported in the U.S. Washington State is seeing epidemic levels with 964 cases reported so far this year. New York has reported 695 cases so far this year. Texas has reported 311. Not to mention the 9,154 and 2,937 cases that occurred in California in 2010 and 2011, respectively.

And let’s not forget measles — the disease that just won’t go away. Before the vaccine was introduced, nearly 500,000 cases of measles were reported each year. That number dropped by more than 98% in post-vaccine years. However, outbreaks continue to occur, particularly in populations with low vaccination coverage. Since 2008 there have been measles outbreaks in Indiana, California, Illinois and 15 other states. Most cases are in children and adults who are unvaccinated. Last year, the U.S. reported 222 cases. Of the 222 cases, 166 were unvaccinated or had unknown vaccination status.

In Europe, things are much worse. Thirty-six countries have experienced outbreaks and more than 30,000 cases have been reported since 2011. Moreover, the CDC warns that the Olympics in London pose an additional risk for outbreaks given that most cases of measles in the U.S. result from an unvaccinated person traveling abroad. In 2011, 90% of cases resulted from importations from other countries. The 2008 measles outbreak is a perfect example of how this occurs.

In January 2008, a 7-year-old unvaccinated boy traveled to Switzerland for a family vacation. During this time he contracted measles. Upon his return to California he visited the doctor’s office where he exposed other children to the highly contagious disease. After his symptoms worsened he visited a local emergency room where he further exposed other children. Over the next 3 weeks, his 2 siblings, several classmates, and 3 children who were in the doctor’s waiting room at the same time all became sick with measles. Each child was unvaccinated — 3 were too young to have been vaccinated. That year throughout the U.S., 140 children were infected and 20 were hospitalized.

But enough with the statistics. What will it take for us to appreciate vaccines and all of the protection they provide? As more and more children suffer from the diseases of the past some debate whether it’s the “right choice” to immunize. But what other choice is there? To leave our children vulnerable to vaccine-preventable diseases? All of the statistics I shared earlier don’t mean much if your child isn’t the one who suffers. But what if it was your child who suffered? Imagine your baby with pertussis — coughing so hard she couldn’t catch her breath and turned blue. Or imagine your child in the ICU with measles pneumonia.

Honestly, I can’t begin to imagine my nearly 2-year old enduring this kind of suffering. It seems unimaginable and impossible. And yet it’s very possible. Just ask the Throgmortons — a family who lost their 6-week old daughter, Haleigh, to pertussis. Here’s what they had to say — “Like most parents, we thought it would never happen to us. The reality is that it can happen to anyone.”

But we are a generation who hasn’t encountered most of these diseases ourselves because our parents appreciated the importance of vaccines and chose to vaccinate us. Yet many parents struggle with choosing to vaccinate because they have no memory of the painful reality of these diseases and are more aware of the stories about the perceived dangers of vaccines. And despite the fact that our pediatricians continue to tout the importance of vaccination, we choose instead to trust celebrities and TV doctors.

In the end, what will it take for us to see these diseases for what they really are? Preventable.

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