Dr. Alan G. Kulberg: Vaccinations protect children, serve the common good

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PITTSFIELD — There has been a rise in vaccine-preventable diseases in this country. Diseases that were close to eradication such as measles and mumps have experienced a resurgence as increasing numbers of parents have chosen to not have their children immunized against them. Reasons for not immunizing have included desire for control over what goes into a child's body, distrust of authority, the belief that vaccines are harmful, the belief that natural immunity is preferable to vaccine-induced immunity, and belief that immunizations are an insidious way for pharmaceutical companies to make more money. Social media platforms and some celebrities have facilitated the spread of these beliefs and misinformation.

When I was a practicing pediatrician, I always found it curious that no one would protest my prescribing an antibiotic for an ear infection or pneumonia but some would regard vaccines with suspicion. To be fair, in the past, a significant contributor to the concern about vaccines stemmed from the fact that a small minority of children developed transient neurological irritability after the DTP (diphtheria/pertussis/tetanus) vaccine but that reaction has virtually disappeared with the improved DTaP ("acellular" pertussis component) vaccine. Vaccine safety is constantly monitored and vaccines are always being improved.

It is healthy to question authority but many valid large-scale studies have overwhelmingly demonstrated the safety of today's vaccines and that the benefit conferred far outweighs any risk. To discredit the value of these well-conducted medical studies on vaccines is to turn a blind eye to the facts. The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan said: "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts."

DANGEROUS COMPLACENCY

I began my pediatric career in 1975, a time when many of our current vaccines had not yet been developed. Rarely would a day go by when a child was not admitted to the hospital with pertussis (whooping cough), bacterial meningitis, or blood, soft tissue, and bone infections caused by bacteria that we now have immunizations to prevent. Chickenpox, thought to be a virtual right of passage of childhood years ago, would occasionally be complicated by a secondary bacterial infection which resulted in lost limbs, or loss of life. Allowing or encouraging a child to develop a disease to create natural immunity risks the development of a serious complication from the disease.

It is testimony to the effectiveness of vaccines that most parents today have never experienced a family member or friend who suffered from these diseases and it is this very lack of familiarity that has contributed to complacency about, or rejection of, the value of vaccination. Parents are most fortunate today to have the opportunity to keep their children safe from these childhood scourges. When the polio vaccine was introduced in 1954, parents lined up enthusiastically to have their children immunized because they had first-hand knowledge of the disabling effects of the polio virus. The "good old days" were not always so good.

Pediatric health care providers cannot literally force a child to be vaccinated when a parent objects but can only use evidence-based arguments and provide a healthy dose of reassurance and encouragement to try to change minds. Much has been written about the frailty of our current social fabric that serves to bind us to one another and reminds us that a community thrives best when its citizens believe in the common good. Children who are not immunized do not live in a bubble. They are part of a larger community and their susceptibility to infection and ability to spread infection to others who are vulnerable such as the very young, the immunocompromised, and yes, the under- and un-immunized children, poses a real danger. Will it take a death to make the point about the value of immunizations?

To those parents who question the effectiveness and safety of vaccines, I urge you to protect your children for their benefit, and the common good.

Alan G. Kulberg, M.D., is chairman, Pittsfield Board of Health. This column has been endorsed by the Pittsfield Board of Health.

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