Health Take-Away: Vaccinate against needless risks

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The recent U.S. outbreak of measles, a childhood infection declared eliminated here 19 years ago, reawakens us to the deceptive persistence of such viruses and the importance of continuing to vaccinate against them, even when they appear to be eradicated.

From January to August this year, nearly 1,200 cases of measles were confirmed in 30 states, the greatest number since 1992 and since the 2000 pronouncement of its elimination. The main reason for the outbreak is an increasing number of parents have opted not to have their children vaccinated, despite recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control. Measles is still a common disease in some parts of the world and travelers either bring measles into the U.S. or someone from here gets measles while traveling and brings it home.

The measles outbreak is just one example of what can happen when people either ignore or aren't fully informed about the life-saving benefits of vaccinations. Diseases once common here and around the world, including polio, measles, diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough), rubella (German measles), mumps and tetanus, can now be prevented by vaccination. Thanks to one vaccine, one of the deadliest diseases in history — smallpox — no longer exists outside the laboratory. Over the years, vaccines have prevented countless cases of disease and saved millions of lives.

The CDC estimates that vaccination of children born between 1994 and 2018 in the U.S. will prevent 419 million illnesses, help avoid 936,000 deaths, and save nearly $1.9 trillion in total societal costs.

Newborn babies are naturally immune to many diseases because they have antibodies from their mothers. However, this immunity goes away during the first year of life. If an unvaccinated child is exposed to a disease, their body may not be strong enough to fight it. Before vaccines, many children died from diseases that vaccines now prevent. Those germs still exist, but because most children are protected by vaccines, we don't see these diseases nearly as often.

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The way vaccines work is that they contain some of the same toxins or antigens that cause specific diseases. But the antigens in those vaccines are either killed or weakened to the point they don't cause disease. They are still strong enough to make the immune system automatically produce antibodies guarding against the disease.

Immunizing children also helps protect the health of our larger community. However, with pockets of low vaccination rates among children in communities throughout the U.S., as well as low vaccination rates among adults for conditions like the flu, infectious diseases continue — unnecessarily — to cause long-term health issues and deaths among thousands. Vaccine-preventable diseases are costly, resulting in doctor's visits, hospitalizations, and premature deaths.

One of the most strongly recommended vaccines today is the MMR vaccine, shielding against measles, mumps and rubella. The first dose is generally given to children around 9 to 15 months of age, with a second dose at 15 months to age 6.

In recent years, there has been a growing misperception about a possible link between the MMR vaccine and autism, most likely due to the coincidence of timing; autism is often identified in toddlers between 18 and 30 months, which happens to be about the time children are given their first MMR vaccine. But that should not be mistaken for a cause-and-effect relationship. Extensive reports from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Academy of Medicine and the CDC conclude that there is no scientifically proven link between the MMR vaccine and autism. That claim has been severely disavowed.

The take-away from all of this is clear. Get yourself and your children safely vaccinated from diseases that otherwise can needlessly risk the health and lives of your family and your community.

Gregory J. Malanoski, M.D., is an infectious disease specialist with Berkshire Health Systems.


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