Letter: The wide-ranging benefits of immunizations
The wide-ranging benefits of immunizations
This week through Saturday, we celebrate the 20th annual National Infant Immunization Week. Joining hundreds of communities across the U.S., we highlight the critical role vaccination plays in protecting our infants and children against disease and death, and promoting our public health. Thanks to advances in medical science, today there are 14 different diseases that childhood vaccines help prevent — including polio, measles, mumps, rubella, pertussis, tetanus, diphtheria, chickenpox, hepatitis A and B, Hib (haemophilus), pneumococcus, rotavirus and influenza.
Over the years, immunization programs have had incredible impact on childhood diseases. Some diseases, which once led to significant disability and death for thousands, have now been eliminated. Smallpox vaccination programs, for example, completely eradicated the disease worldwide, no longer necessitating vaccine use since 1972. Rubella, once a major cause of devastating irreversible birth defects and 20 percent miscarriage rates as it was transmitted from infected mother to developing fetus (congenital rubella syndrome), is now obsolete in the U.S. due to immunization programs. It unfortunately still exists in developing nations where these routine programs may not be available.
Polio as well has been eliminated in the U.S., but still exists internationally. Polio, a highly contagious virus that causes irreversible paralysis, peaked in early 1950s in the U.S. paralyzing over 20,000 people. Today, there have been no cases in the US since 1979. Internationally, however, polio is still endemic in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria, even though global vaccination programs have succeeded in decreasing its incidence by 99 percent since 1988. In 2014, cases of the virus crossing international borders into previously eradicated areas has sparked considerable concern. The U.S. is certainly not immune from this possibility.
Recently pertussis and measles have had alarming resurgences in the U.S. Many of us consider pertussis, or “whooping cough,” an unfamiliar disease of the past. Before the vaccine was first introduced in the 1940s, it was the cause of 8,000 deaths a year in the US – this successfully fell to only 4 deaths by the late 70s. Yet in Colorado pertussis has been considered to be an epidemic over the past two years, reaching 1,500 cases a year in both 2012 and 2013, and continue at a high rate into 2014. Ninety percent of deaths from pertussis are in infants. In Colorado and across the U.S., there has been a strong public health response to this concerning epidemic, urging people to vaccinate against pertussis. Measles as well has been on the rise in the U.S. since 2011, with already 129 cases in 2014. Two cases were in Denver last year from a traveler abroad. For a disease that had been considered eradicated in 2000, this is a significant threat. Measles can cause a fatal pneumonia and encephalitis in unimmunized children. It still remains a major cause of death in children under 5 in developing nations.
By immunizing our children and ourselves, we also protect family and other community members from disease through “herd immunity.” This occurs when the vaccination of a significant proportion of the population provides protection for those individuals who are not immune, such as newborns and immunocompromised children and adults. When we chose not to immunize our children, we put our own families and our community at risk for these diseases. When a growing number of people in a community are not immunized against a disease, the disease can cause outbreaks. This is evidenced by the examples of the recent concerning rise of previously eradicated diseases, such as pertussis and measles.
These examples demonstrate that vaccination programs are the most successful and cost-effective public health tools we have for preventing disease and death. Concerns for vaccine safety have been a main reason why some people have avoided vaccinating their children. To note, thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative for vaccines, has been blamed as a possible cause of autism. Research, however, does not demonstrate this causative link. Since 2001, thimerosal has been removed from all childhood vaccinations, yet rates of autism have actually increased since then. The Institute for Vaccine Safety was established in 1997 at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. It provides independent assessments of vaccine safety to educate the public.
Please join us to celebrate National Infant Immunization Week. For more information on the infant immunization program in Pitkin County, call the Community Health Services at 970-920-5420, located across from the hospital. The staff at Community Health Services are dedicated and experienced, and are available to answer your questions about vaccines. Individual appointments can be made for administering vaccines, or simply to discuss your concerns. Also talk with your child’s doctor.
Dr. Kimberly Levin
Pitkin County medical officer
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