August 9, 2011
Late on a Thursday afternoon, I sat helplessly watching as large purple blotches formed on my unconscious patient’s skin. Twelve-year-old Cody* had suddenly contracted meningococcal meningitis.
Three days earlier he had been a healthy, active young cowboy on his dad’s farm riding his horse as fast as he could go. Now, after being treated with every appropriate antibiotic available, he remained unresponsive in the isolation ICU at the local hospital. His parents would have given any amount of money to have their son back. I sat outside the glass barrier with them as Cody slipped quietly from this world into the next. It doesn’t take too many experiences like this true story to become a believer—especially when one considers the possibility of preventing such a tragedy.
As a primary care physician, I spend much of my day educating my patients about the prevention of health problems. People spend a lot of money treating disease at the end of its course rather than nipping it in the bud up front. Preventative health care is key to living a long and productive life. Few measures demonstrate this more fully than in the case of vaccinations.
A vaccine is to your immune system as college is to life. It prepares you in a relatively safe and controlled environment for potential challenges you may be faced with later on. If and when that happens, you can easily deal with the situation because you’d seen something similar before. You were prepared. The shield vaccines provide is really no different.
Sure, vaccinations have evolved over time; no medication is perfect. Everything we do in health care has potential risks and benefits, but many of us alive today don’t really appreciate the enormous impact these diseases had only a few short decades ago. Just ask your grandparents about smallpox and polio. Yet I am surprised how frequently parents resist vaccinating their children. It is nothing short of amazing that so many intelligent people still passionately oppose vaccines.
I encourage my patients to become educated about their concerns. The data is indisputable—vaccines have slowed or eradicated the spread of so many diseases. Your world and mine is currently safer because of widespread vaccination programs. Most insurance plans will cover vaccinations. State health departments will administer them at little or no cost. All 50 states require certain vaccinations for all children entering public schools. Even the LDS Church missionary medical department, overseen by a living prophet, requires a full allotment of vaccines for missionaries. Failure to get vaccinated can seriously limit where a missionary can serve.
Misconceptions and rumor have tainted the great advantages and protection that vaccines offer. One such falsehood is the link between the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine and childhood autism. In short, there is no cause-and-effect relationship. The original article claiming this relationship in the medical journal The Lancet has been retracted. It was based on a group of 12 children in which parents of 9 of these children thought that symptoms of autism developed after receiving the MMR vaccine. This association has been disproven time and time again by several large-scale studies. Don’t take my word. . . . Look it up.
Another common concern was the potential for harm from the mercury-based preservative thimerosal found in some vaccines. There is no convincing evidence of harm caused by the low doses of thimerosal in vaccines, except for minor reactions like redness and swelling at the injection site. It also does not cause autism. It is simply broken down and eliminated from the body quickly after exposure. Since 2001 most vaccines have not contained thimerosal as a further precaution. Finally there has been no causal relationship between vaccines and Guillain-Barre’ syndrome or SIDS in infants.
What about syncope (fainting) after a vaccine? I see this one fairly often, but no more than when we draw a blood sample (or when I get carried away telling a gory story). Most of these cases are in teens, but I have seen many a muscle-bound bodybuilder drop to the floor at the first sight of a needle. We just do our best to assist them on their way down. They all come around within a few minutes.
Vaccines are held to the highest standard of safety. The United States currently has the safest, most effective vaccine supply in history. Years of testing are required by law before a vaccine can be licensed. Once in use, vaccines are continually monitored for safety and effectiveness.
We are so fortunate today to have the technology to improve our lives through vaccination. Diseases that once ravaged whole societies have been controlled. New and simpler methods of vaccination are being developed, including nanotechnology and even mosquito-delivered vaccines. Diseases such as HIV, tuberculosis, and even many types of cancer could be eradicated in our own lifetime! Medicine is an incredible field, and I for one am very optimistic about the future.
Now let’s get healthy!
* Name of child has been changed