Doctor’s Tip: The immunization success story
“Extending the full benefits of immunization to every person worldwide by 2020 would prevent an estimated 20 million deaths — mostly in children — and untold suffering from blindness, paralysis, and deafness for millions more.”
— Robert Pearl, in his 2017 book “Mistreated”
It’s been said that America doesn’t have a health care system; instead we have a disease management system — we wait until preventable diseases occur and then spend billions of dollars managing them. However, there is one shining example of how our system should work: immunizations.
Vaccine, used for immunization, is defined as “a suspension of attenuated or killed microorganisms (bacteria, viruses or rickettsia), or of antigenic proteins derived from them, administered for the prevention, amelioration or treatment 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. In 1920 there were 469,924 measles cases, with 7,575 deaths. In 1920 there were 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 was a yearly average of 16,316 cases of paralytic polio, with 1,879 deaths. Prior to introduction in 1987 of the Hib vaccine against the Hemophilus bacteria, there were 20,000 cases of childhood infection a year, causing meningitis, mental retardation and many deaths. Since vaccines were introduced for these and other diseases, they have almost disappeared in the U.S. For example, there has not been a case of polio here since 1979, and smallpox was eradicated worldwide in 1977.
There are two vaccines that prevent cancer. One is the HPV vaccine, which prevents the sexually-transmitted wart virus that is the cause of cancer of the cervix and which 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, but almost always it’s safest to wear seat belts.
We’re living in an age of dangerous conspiracy theories, not based on facts, and often spread via the internet. Unfortunately, there is a small but vociferous group of people, including some alternative providers, who make unfounded claims 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) vaccine. Subsequently his paper was found to be a hoax — his data was made up — and he lost his medical license. Subsequent studies have failed to show such a link, but it has taken time to educate the public about the truth.
There are multiple infectious diseases that we no longer have to worry about in this country because of the success of our immunization programs. To see if you or your child are up to date on immunizations, check with your primary care provider, the CDC website, or with your county public health office.
COVID-19 has killed over 200,000 people so far in this country. A vaccine is on the horizon, and we all hope it will prove to be safe and effective before it is released for general use — and it should be if it goes through the usual FDA process. However, there is concern that the process is being rushed due to political pressure.
Greg Feinsinger, M.D., is a retired family physician with a special interest in heart disease and diabetes prevention and reversal, ideally though lifestyle changes. He’s available for free, one-hour consultations — call 379-5718.
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