Why do we vaccinate our children?
National Infant Immunization Week (NIIW) is an ideal time to address this question.
Each of our currently available immunizations was developed to solve a problem. Each shot is a response to a major disease that has caused death, disability or major economic loss for our country.
The prototype was smallpox, a disease that ravaged the human race since the time of the great Pharaohs of ancient Egypt. It was noted in the 1700’s that milkmaids who had the mild disease cowpox seemed resistant to smallpox. Thus, the revolutionary concept that exposure of our immune systems to a minor glimpse of a disease could potentially prevent horrible disease later. Dr. Edward Jenner and others calculated that a tiny glass cut with a drop of smallpox fluid on it could give a controlled minor infection that could prevent the life-threatening one later. And it worked! Our own founding father Benjamin Franklin traveled from Pennsylvania to the Atlantic coastline to have this done.
As we discuss immunization, we must first realize just how real so many of these diseases have been in our history:
…The yellow fever epidemics of the late 1800’s.
…The horrible Diphtheria epidemics of the early 1900’s, that killed so many kids.
…Flu epidemics following WWI that killed hundreds of thousands here and Europe.
…The measles epidemics of the 1940’s and 50’s.
…The national panic of the polio epidemics of the 1950’s that killed and paralyzed so many.
…The recognition of rubella as the primary cause of 10’s of thousands of hopelessly damaged babies each year recognized and counted in the 1960’s and 70’s.
…All of the annual 12-18,000 cases of childhood meningitis that either killed or caused brain damage.
…The constant threat of pertussis to our infants, the eternal risks of both epidemic and blood borne hepatitis and many other bacterial and viral terrors...
All of these illnesses have had their time to torment us and all have been stopped or largely controlled with the miracle of targeted immunization. American Scientists and doctors have been at the lead of a large part of this progress!
Each vaccine works to trigger natural immunity to a disease without the patient having to risk death or disability. Each vaccine identifies a few key proteins or characteristics of a pathogen and shows them to a patient’s immune system. Although there are a few live virus vaccines to fight the strongest germs, most vaccines contain no germs or even portions of germs. Just showing an immune system a few proteins can create antibodies and immune cells that can fight off the whole germ is it shows its ugly face.
So, vaccines are really the NATURAL way to prevent disease using a mechanism that God and Mother Nature put in all of us. Once our immune system knows what to look for, it can pump out antibodies in hours rather than days. Without that heads up, it normally takes anywhere from 7 to 14 days for an average immune system to have an immune response. That may be acceptable for minor colds but is FAR too long for strong pathogens. A bad germ like diphtheria or HIB can do terrible damage in hours. You don’t have a week. We have seen HIB destroy a toddler’s brain in less than 8 hours. Without boosted, circulating, pre-immunity a child has no chance.
And the vaccines have worked! Most of you, and many younger doctors have not seen most or all of the diseases I have listed. Some of the doctors at New Braunfels Pediatrics have seen them, but only on mission trips to less developed countries. Oh, and Dr. Owens has seen many of them because he was alive back then... J
So as vaccine awareness week approaches, let’s be thankful for the freedom from life threatening diseases that scientists and physicians have fought to accomplish! Yes, we still have some citizens and a few practitioners that refuse vaccinations and work against our success. After speaking with so many of these people in my time on the radio, and in the clinical practice of pediatrics, I am convinced that most are just misinformed. Many concerns are based on things that either are just not true or haven’t been true in decades. As we have reviewed, these diseases are real and continue to be real in some of the very countries from which so many of the unscreened (undocumented) come to cross our borders. In the second installment of this article, I will discuss why the current risk to our kids may be increasing rather than continuing to fall. I will also discuss vaccine controversies and the steps taken to make current vaccines so incredibly safe. But for now, we will use the coming week to treasure our American kids’ relative safety from most dangerous infections!
Mark D Statler MD
New Braunfels Pediatric Associates