Vaccines That Keep the Monsters of the Past at Bay

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In 1867, a yellow fever epidemic swept Memphis… Across the street from me, ten persons lay dead from the plague. The dead surrounded us. They were buried in night quickly and without ceremony. All about my house at night I could hear weeping and the cries of delirium. One by one, my four little children sickened and died. I washed their little bodies and got them ready for burial. My husband caught the fever and died. I sat alone through the nights of grief. No one came to me. No one could. Other homes were as stricken as mine. All day, all night long, I heard the grating of the wheels of the death cart. — Mary Jones, aka Mother Jones, from her autobiography.

Modern Americans don’t remember the panic and death associated with epidemics that once ravaged our country. Even as recently as 1952, which was my parent’s generation, people lived in the grip of fear as more then 59,000 cases of polio swept through all 48 states. Richard Aldrich, M.D., in his book, A Paralyzing Fear, wrote,

The first summer when I was home in Minnesota was that gosh-awful polio epidemic they had there. We admitted 464 proven cases of polio just at the University Hospital, which is unbelievable. And this was a very severe paralytic form. Maybe two or three hours after a lot of these kids would come in with a stiff neck or a fever, they’d be dead. It was unbelievable. It was just loads of people that came in, sometimes with only a fever but usually a headache and a little stiffness in the neck. And just absolutely terrified… A lot of people just took up and moved away, went to another city.

Parents were incapacitated by fears of children dying or being permanently scarred from childhood diseases such as chicken pox, hepatitis, polio, mumps, measles, meningitis, pneumonia or whooping cough. Before the invention of antibiotics, even the smallest scraped knee could quickly become fatal from infections. “… a little more than a century ago, the U.S. infant mortality rate was a staggering 20 percent, and the childhood mortality rate before age five was another disconcerting 20 percent,” according to Alexandra Stern, assistant professor of American Culture at the A Paralyzing Fear.

Parents today can’t imagine burying a child before age five because of common illnesses. We’ve become complacent, forgetting the huge medical advances brought about by antibiotics and vaccines.

In this climate, however, there is an anti-vaccination movement among today’s parents that may have long-term implications. Because parents fear a potential link between vaccinations and the rise in autism cases, many parents are opting out of giving vaccines. Since autism is now found in one in every 150 American children, there’s a lot of fear.  (For a deeper discussion on autism and its causes, here’s my article entitled The United States of Autism on JJIE.)

For more than 10 years researchers have been trying to determine if there’s a link between the vaccinations routinely given to infants and the increase in autism. According to the CDC,

“Because signs of autism may appear around the same time children receive the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccination, some parents may worry that the vaccine causes autism. Vaccine safety experts, including experts at the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics, agree that the MMR vaccine is not responsible for recent increases in the number of children with autism.”

Recently in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Saad Omer from Emory University warned that parents who don’t vaccinate might bring back illnesses that have almost been eradicated in the United States, often with deadly consequences. “Rates of exemption are substantially higher today than several years ago. Previously, rates were only rising in states with easy exemption policies, but now they are even rising in states that make it more difficult.”

Colorado, Washington, Minnesota and Wisconsin have been dealing with an extensive outbreak of pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services reported 4,181 cases as of Sept. 3, 2012. This is 78 percent higher than the national average. Minnesota has reported 3,369 cases; Washington had 4,115 cases and 20 other states have reported cases of between 58 and 10 percent higher than the national average.

According to a 2008 CNN Report, “Currently, nearly one-half of 1 percent of kids enrolled in school are unvaccinated under a medical waiver; 2 to 3 percent have a nonmedical one, and the numbers appear to be rising.”

The need for vaccinations doesn’t end in the pediatrician’s office. “Moms on Meningitis” (or M.O.M.s), is hosting an awareness campaign to have freshmen vaccinated before ever heading to a college campus.  Lynn Bozof, the executive director of the National Meningitis Association, said, “We hope this awareness campaign will encourage parents to immunize their college-bound children against meningococcal meningitis.”

Bozof lost a son to the disease when he was a junior in college and said, “No parent should have to watch a child become permanently disfigured or die from this disease. Immunization has been around for years.”

For more information on vaccinations:

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