Doctor’s Tip: Getting immunized is like wearing seat belts
It’s been said that America doesn’t have a health care system, but instead we have an expensive disease management system — we wait until preventable diseases occur and then spend billions of dollars managing them. There is one shining example of how our system should work: immunizations, which save millions of lives, prevent millions of cases of disability (e.g. deafness from measles, birth defects from rubella) and save the health-care system billions of dollars. Last week’s column discussed the “pneumonia shot” and the column two weeks ago the flu shot, and how these immunizations prevent serious disease and death.
Vaccine, used for immunization, is defined as “a suspension of attenuated or killed microorganisms (bacteria, viruses or rickettsiae), or of antigenic proteins derived from them, administered for the prevention, amelioration or treatments of infectious diseases.” In other words, vaccines mobilize our natural defense mechanisms, resulting in antibodies that prevent disease, without causing us to experience the disease. In underdeveloped countries, infectious diseases are still a major cause of death and disability, and this was once true in our country. But immunizations changed that.
In 1900, there were 21,064 cases of smallpox in the U.S., with 894 deaths; 469,924 measles cases and 7,575 deaths; 147,991 cases of diphtheria, with 13,170 deaths. In 1922 there were 107,473 cases of pertussis (whooping cough) with 5,099 deaths. From 1951 to 1954, there were an average of 16,316 cases of paralytic polio per year with 1,879 deaths. Prior to introduction in 1987 of the Hib vaccine against the Haemophilus bacteria, there were 20,000 cases of childhood infection a year, causing meningitis and mental retardation and many deaths.
Since vaccines were introduced for these and other diseases, they have almost disappeared in the U.S. There has not been a case of polio in the U.S. since 1979, and smallpox was eradicated worldwide in 1977.
Two vaccines prevent cancer. One is the HPV vaccine, which prevents the sexually transmitted wart virus that is the cause of cancer of the cervix and that can also cause cancer of the mouth and throat via oral sex transmission. The other is hepatitis B vaccine, because chronic hepatitis B causes liver cancer.
Are vaccines safe? The short answer is yes, extremely safe. Minor irritation at the injection site is common with many types of immunization. Children can experience post-immunization irritability and fever, but these symptoms are less common since the introduction of the acellular pertussis vaccine (part of the DPT shot). Serious side effects from vaccines, such as anaphylactic allergic reactions, have an incidence of approximately one per 1 million vaccine doses, and can usually be successfully treated.
I tell patients that getting immunized is like wearing seat belts — very rarely someone drowns in a car accident when their car goes into a river and they can’t get their seat belt off. It’s safest to wear seat belts.
Unfortunately, a small but vociferous group of people, including some alternative providers, make unfounded claims on the internet and elsewhere about alleged harm from vaccinations. Several years ago a British scientist wrote a paper claiming a link between autism and the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella or German measles) vaccine. Subsequently his paper was found to be a hoax, and multiple subsequent studies have failed to show such a link. However, it has taken time to educate the public about the truth.
I recall in the 1950s lining up to get the polio vaccine, and the relief of my and other parents that their kids would never come down with dreaded paralytic polio. As a freshman medical student in Denver in 1964 I was walking by a room at Colorado General Hospital that was filled with iron lung machines, used for patients who were completely paralyzed by polio and who therefore couldn’t breathe.
This was a few years after essentially everyone in the U.S. had been immunized against polio, so these machines were no longer needed. There are multiple infectious diseases that we no longer have to worry about, because of the success of immunization programs in this country.
If we travel to underdeveloped countries, especially in the tropics, we can get immunized against infectious diseases that are still prevalent there, such as cholera and yellow fever. And thanks to the World Health Organization many people in underdeveloped countries are getting immunized. To see if you or your child are up to date on immunizations, check with your primary care provider, on the Centers for Disease Control website or at a county public health office.
Dr. Feinsinger, who retired from Glenwood Medical Associates after 42 years as a family physician, now has a nonprofit Center For Prevention and Treatment of Disease Through Nutrition. He is available for free consultations about heart attack prevention and any other medical concerns. Call 970-379-5718 for an appointment. For questions about his columns, email him at email@example.com.