My Aunt Barbara is 63 years old. She is mentally handicapped and functions as a child. She is legally blind and deaf. All of this could have been prevented with a simple vaccination.
My grandmother contracted rubella while pregnant with Aunt Barbara. Unfortunately the vaccine to protect against rubella wasn’t available until almost 10 years after my aunt was born.
When I was asked to write about the topic of vaccines, I admittedly panicked. This is a controversial topic today and many people have strong arguments for and against vaccinations.
As a physician, I am a proponent of vaccines. As someone whose family has been affected by a vaccine-preventable disease, I think it is important for us to be reminded of the debilitating and life-threatening effects of these infections.
I venture to say that most of the physicians my age have rarely diagnosed a vaccine-preventable disease with the exception of maybe chicken pox. (I would also wager than even when a diagnosis of chicken pox is made, an older colleague is typically brought in on the case to confirm the diagnosis.)
I remember when I had the chicken pox. Like most people, I had the itchy, red rash and fever. Severe complications from chicken pox include meningitis and pneumonia. For those who develop the complications, they have a 50 percent chance of surviving the infection. The chicken pox vaccine was given starting in 1995 and since then 80 percent of infections are prevented entirely and 99 percent of the severe infections are prevented.
When was the last time one of your friends was diagnosed with polio? I have never seen someone with active polio but I have seen the consequences of polio infections from patients’ childhoods in the 1950’s. There were 57,879 cases of polio diagnosed in the U.S. in 1952. Patients had weakened or even paralyzed legs. They had to wear braces to walk or use a wheelchair because of the effects of the disease, and they often suffered pain from it. The people with these lifelong consequences of the disease were the lucky ones - they didn’t die.
With the development of the polio vaccine, the disease has been virtually eradicated. There were no cases diagnosed in the U.S. in 2000.
In the 1950’s and before, diphtheria would have been at the forefront of my mind as a physician when someone presented with a sore throat. This life-threatening illness causes a membrane-like coating to form on the back of the throat that can extend into the respiratory system. The severe swelling associated with this disease could lead to the inability to breathe and even death. Since the vaccine was developed, there is a 97 percent prevention rate of the infection. It is important to prevent diphtheria because once it is contracted, with treatment there is still a 1 in 10 chance of death. Without treatment, there is a 50 percent chance of death.
The mortality rate has changed very little in the past 50 years despite advances in medicine. I have highlighted just a few of the vaccine-preventable diseases that were commonplace in the 1950s because vaccinations were not developed or available on a widespread basis. As school starts and you are faced with your children’s or grandchildren’s vaccines, I ask you to think about life before vaccines and the complications that could develop from not having the vaccinations available today.
Whether you are in favor of or against vaccines, the benefits of vaccines are clear and I urge you to speak openly with your physician regarding any questions or concerns you may have.
Jennifer Saurette is a board certified family physician joining Tyler Internal Medicine Associates.