Confessions of a Quackbuster

This blog deals with healthcare consumer protection, and is therefore about quackery, healthfraud, chiropractic, and other forms of so-Called "Alternative" Medicine (sCAM).

Friday, November 04, 2005

Vaccines Vital To Health

Vaccines Vital To Health
By Emily Groff
Published: Thursday, November 3, 2005

With all the talk of a possible global flu pandemic, interest in flu vaccinations has been running high. In fact, President George W. Bush asked Congress for $7.1 billion, most of which would go to researching or procuring vaccines, on Tuesday to fight avian flu.

Although it seems everyone wants a flu shot, since smallpox was eradicated and polio was wiped out in the Western Hemisphere, the popularity of other vaccinations has fallen. Increasingly, parents are refusing to immunize their children, either because they think the vaccines are dangerous or the diseases they would prevent no longer exist. Polio may be rare, but it and other diseases childhood vaccines prevent, like diphtheria, measles, mumps, pertussis and tetanus, are common in other parts of the world. They are unusual here precisely because of the immunizations, but travelers can easily bring them back to the United States, infecting people who have no immunity. Because of this, skipping common vaccines is actually quite dangerous, for both the individual child and the whole community. Certain vaccinations are mandatory in many states. Although some people argue this is a violation of civil rights, we must balance public health policy with individual rights in order to keep vaccination levels high enough to prevent the spread of disease. In addition, health professionals must focus attention on adults who may not have been immunized or whose immunization may be wearing off.

At the turn of the last century, parents feared their children would catch one of many common childhood diseases and die. Today, parents worry about the very vaccines that allayed that fear because they are no longer familiar with the images of pain and suffering of their forebearers. Although these vaccines have become safer, concerns about them have increased, spurred by the Internet. The anti-vaccine movement operates a number of web sites claiming vaccines cause illnesses about which little is known, such as asthma and autism. The movement even urged the Food and Drug Administration to a remove thimerasol, a preservative containing mercury, from all vaccines on the basis it caused autism.

Despite extensive media coverage and numerous academic studies, no relationship has been found between thimerasol and autism. In fact, the National Network for Immunization Information reports, "There is no convincing evidence that vaccines ... cause long term health effects. On the other hand, we do know that people will become ill and some will die from the diseases this vaccine prevents." Indeed, the proliferation of web sites recommending parents avoid immunizing their children has attracted converts to the anti-vaccine movement. As the author of one study noted, "As this occurs, the incidence of vaccine-preventable diseases can be expected to rise."

His prophecy proved true. The New York Times reported 17 children and two adults contracted pertussis, also known as whooping cough, in Westchester County recently. Although most children are routinely vaccinated against pertussis, the parents of four of the infected children had foregone the immunization "because of their conscious decision." Dr. Joshua Lipsman, the country health commissioner, told the newspaper, "Certainly one of the take-home lessons here is that children should receive immunizations against vaccine-preventable disease, or we run the risk of outbreaks of those diseases and all the consequent costs in human suffering."

The anti-vaccine movement apparently does not know how dangerous it is. Although supporters routinely cite the side effects of vaccines as reason for their stance, the actual risks are minimal, especially when compared to the dangers of the diseases themselves. Severe reactions are rare and studies have shown the vaccines do not cause chronic illnesses. When vaccination levels fall, however, incidences of the illness they prevent rise. The outbreak of pertussis in Westchester is one example. A larger pertussis epidemic occurred in the mid-1970s in Great Britain. The same thing happened Japan in 1979, after the vaccination rate fell from 80 percent of children to just 10 percent following fears of side effects. Earlier this year, measles broke out in Indiana after a teenager returned from a trip to Romania infected with the illness.

The more people refuse to immunize their children, the greater the risk to the whole country. Though diseases like polio, pertussis and measles them have largely been eliminated, the viruses and bacteria that cause them still exist. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported, "Even if there are only a few cases of disease today, if we take away the protection given by vaccination, more and more people will be infected and will spread disease to others. Soon we will undo the progress we have made over the years." Clearly, the public health must be protected. Thankfully, many states do this by mandating vaccinations.

In order to attend public schools, children in many states must have certain immunizations, unless they are exempted by religious or philosophical beliefs, though specific rules vary. An article in The American Journal of Public Health stated, "Compulsory vaccination has contributed to the success of U.S. immunization programs in eradicating smallpox, eliminating polio, and reducing by 98 to 99 percent the incidence of most other vaccine-preventable diseases." Although the anti-vaccination movement claims these laws violate their civil rights, the United States must act in the public good. As long as exemptions are allowed for serious beliefs, mandatory vaccination protects individual children and entire communities.

Most programs only apply to elementary schools but the CDC recently recommended states extend immunization requirements to middle schools as well because of the importance of adolescent and adult immunization. Indeed, although "childhood immunization coverage rates are above 90 percent in the United States, adolescent and adult immunization rates are under 70 percent." Adult immunization is very important because some illnesses, such as chickenpox, affect adults more severely than children. In addition, vaccines may have been improved or immunity may have worn off since adults were children. Adults should be vaccinated against influenza, diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, measles-mumps-rubella and Hepatitis B.

With the avian flu garnering so much attention lately, it is important not to forget about other diseases. Vaccinations save lives and extensive immunization programs eradicate diseases. April was the 50th anniversary of the invention of the Polio vaccine. In half a century, the disease has virtually disappeared from the Western Hemisphere, but further advances can only occur if everyone is vaccinated. Americans must get their shots.


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