What we need is an outbreak of education about the value of routine immunizations

I have always made sure my children received their vaccinations on time, and wow, my daughter is off to college soon! That’s a lot of shots over the course of 18 years.

My daughter as a preemie …

Before she goes, I will occasionally spoil her with her favorite, albeit pricey, Starbucks drink: a Venti Very Berry Hibiscus Ice Refresher, always with the bright green straw. Yes, I do spoil her. See, I remember when she got all her nutrition through a tube. Not a straw, but a feeding tube. She was born six weeks early and was a preemie in the neonatal intensive care unit.

I OK’ed her first vaccines and barely worried about the side effects because I had read the statistics on the vaccination sheets. I knew the purpose of vaccinations – that they protected the whole population, not just my children. You could say that I am a gambling woman AND a scientist AND a mom, so I calculated that the benefits of vaccination really did outweigh the risks. 

This goes for measles, too. This highly contagious disease was not a risk I wanted to take. Measles is not as devastating as smallpox or polio (more on that later), but it is a preventable disease, thanks to vaccinations.

Not everyone agrees, unfortunately.

The consequences of poor vaccine coverage

It’s been hard to ignore the “rash” of recent news detailing outbreaks of measles in unvaccinated populations. These outbreaks will certainly reduce the previously achieved “herd immunity” due to the rapid movement of people travelling across the globe. Part of the reason vaccines are so successful is because of community immunity, or herd immunity. The more people in a community that get vaccinated, the fewer people will be susceptible to infection, including those who remain unvaccinated because they are either too young or immune compromised.

Perhaps this recent measles outbreak will bring awareness to some unfortunate areas which don’t have the resources to fully vaccinate their people, like in the Ukraine, which experienced a major spike in measles-related deaths this year. Perhaps awareness will reach some areas in the US, where a higher percentage of parents are opting to not vaccinate their kids. The situation has become so dire that a State of Emergency has been declared in certain counties in the state of Washington, which in turn is causing a ripple effect of fear among parents. They are scrambling and second-guessing. Apparently whatever fears parents had about potential side effects is being overtaken by fears of serious effects from measles infections, which should have been preventable.

As a mom and a scientist, I make sure my children receive what the CDC pediatric chart suggests. Vaccines do make a difference. Yet even though I am a scientist, I don’t judge folks who choose not to vaccinate their children. Perhaps they have been uninformed, misled, or are just confused by what they hear on the evening news or read on the Internet. I know that so much of the information that is floating out there can be frustratingly contradictory. The Internet can be a source of good information providing the information is coming from validated sites, such as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the US National Institutes of Health or the American Academy of Pediatrics. If one is concerned about the use of vaccinations then a discussion with the family practitioner should be considered. When it comes to health issues, I, as an Internet junkie, will exhaustively research many different opinions and scientific studies. As a scientist AND a mom I have learned over the years that vaccinations are certainly “better living through chemistry”.

Vaccine success stories

Consider polio. Do you remember those photos of polio-infected children in isolation chambers? I knew a polio survivor growing up. Polio was once a national emergency in the US. We easily forget this, as well as how vaccinations came to the rescue and helped eliminate the virus in the US and most parts of the world.

Smallpox is another vaccine success story.  My children don’t need the smallpox vaccine because we eradicated the disease. That’s right – ELIMINATED, ERADICATED, GONE! I have such a nice big circle still imprinted on my arm from my smallpox vaccine, a badge of proof of being over 40. I was at the tail end of that successful push for “herd immunity” against smallpox, an orthopoxvirus considered to be one of the largest threats to mankind. It was eliminated with a concerted effort using vaccinations on a global scale – true teamwork of government agencies and medical staff for the benefit of mankind.

For those worried about safety, it is clear that the general population has benefitted from both new medications and safety testing. Vaccinations are rigorously tested and regulated by federal agencies who are charged to protect the public. The agency may have been partially started to safeguard us against snake oil sellers, but remember that the FDA was also responsible for denying the approval of thalidomide a sedative given to pregnant moms in the 1950s and 1960s to alleviate morning sickness. The drug, which was available in Europe, was later found to cause tremendous birth defects including very short limbs. There were some in the US who did obtain the medication through other means outside the country, and I remember such a person in my childhood likely affected by circumventing the system. The FDA protection is still highly involved in regulating medications to this day.

Passive immunization

… and in high school

Vaccination can also be useful when vulnerable people are exposed to a virus. When my daughter was a preemie 17 years ago, she was eligible for another type of medication that works like a vaccine but involves passively injecting antibodies that fight against respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). This injection probably saved her from a nasty infection that first winter of delicate health (statistics indicate that about 2% of children under 6 months of age who contract RSV end up in the hospital). I was grateful for this bonus medication. She did actually come down with RSV in her second winter as a toddler (most children under the age of 2 will eventually get RSV). It was a rough illness for her to get over, and even kept us away from our extended-family Christmas events, so in hindsight I knew that it was so crucial for her to have gotten that preventative medication her first very vulnerable winter cold season.

Time sure goes fast as a parent. Right now, I am filling out graduation and prom forms and so many papers for college applications. Because of staying on top of the health recommendations, I will also be turning in those vaccination records to the college medical staff soon as well!

Education is so incredibly important. Let’s hope this current measles outbreak also leads to an outbreak of education and subsequent immunizations—for the good of all.