Vaccines are among the most safe and effective public health interventions to prevent serious disease and death.
Before polio vaccine was available, 13,000 to 20,000 cases of paralytic polio were reported each year in the United States.
Before measles immunization was available, nearly everyone in the U.S. got measles, and an average of 450 measles-associated deaths were reported each year between 1953 and 1963.
Before pertussis immunizations were available, nearly all children developed whooping cough. In the U.S., prior to pertussis immunization, between 150,000 and 260,000 cases of pertussis were reported each year, with up to 9,000 pertussis-related deaths.
How do vaccines work?
Vaccines help develop immunity by imitating an infection. This type of infection does not cause illness, but it does cause the immune system to produce antibodies. Once the imitation infection goes away, the body is left with a supply of antibodies that will remember how to fight that disease in the future.
Health care providers who vaccinate young children follow a schedule prepared by the U.S. Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, a group of medical and public health experts. The current schedule is timed to protect children from 14 diseases by inoculating them at the time in their lives when they are most vulnerable to disease.
Much of the fear about vaccines is still due to concerns about autism -- this is a groundless claim that arose from a spurious study involving 12 children, published in The Lancet, a British medical journal. The article was dismissed in 2010 as "irresponsible and dishonest" and retracted from the journal. The article's lead author had his medical license revoked in Great Britain. Numerous powerful studies published subsequently have shown absolutely no correlation between vaccines and autism.
One reason commonly cited for not vaccinating is fear about safety. The most comprehensive examination of the safety of the U.S. childhood immunization schedule to date found no evidence that the schedule was unsafe, and underscored that delaying or declining vaccination has led to outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases that put the public's health at risk.
Another reason is the belief that the risks outweigh the benefits.
It's true that any vaccine can cause side effects, but for the most part they are minor (redness/sore arm, low-grade fever) and go away within a few days. The risk of a severe adverse reaction to a vaccine is extremely low and varies somewhat by vaccine.
The benefit of childhood vaccines is the 74 to 100-percent reduction in cases of all 14 of the vaccine-preventable childhood diseases.
Some parents mistakenly believe that too many vaccines overload their child's immune system.
A recent study in the journal Pediatrics concluded that multiple vaccines do not overwhelm, weaken, or "use up" children's immune system. On the contrary, young infants have an enormous capacity to respond to multiple vaccines, as well as to the many other challenges present in the environment.
And some parents choose not to vaccinate believing that they can rely on "herd immunity," a situation in which, due to vaccination or prior illness, a sufficient proportion of the population is immune to an infectious disease, making outbreaks or epidemics unlikely. Unfortunately, especially in our mobile society, diseases are easily and quickly transmitted from one end of the globe to another. Just because a disease is not here today, doesn't mean it won't be here tomorrow and quickly spread through the unvaccinated portion of our population. Alaska's current pertussis epidemic -- and recent pertussis-related infant death -- underscore the danger of relying on herd immunity to protect children whose parents chose to delay or defer their vaccinations.
Vaccinating is both a personal and social responsibility. When we vaccinate our children, we protect their health, but also the health of their classmates and friends, and the younger siblings and elderly grandparents of their classmates and friends. Just as a whole community invests in our shared assets like schools and roads and libraries, we all need to pitch in to make sure that our community is safe from vaccine preventable diseases.
For more facts about the safety and efficacy of vaccines, go to www.cdc.gov/vaccines.
Joe McLaughlin, M.D., MPH, is chief of the Section of Epidemiology for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.