Working in health care requires me to constantly help the doctors educate and inform those who seek treatment. Patients are always missing the forest for the trees, focusing on some minor possibility while ignoring obvious larger causes for diseases. We have been battling this year’s epidemic of pertussis. Pertussis, that’s whooping cough for pity’s sake! It’s a highly contagious bacterial disease dangerous to the very young that we have been capable of eradicating safely for decades through vaccination. Why did it happen? Because people believe all kinds of crap, nonsense and myth instead of actual science, that’s why. Fear rules, people get needlessly sick, and a few parents get to bury their infants as a result. These are preventable deaths, caused by willful ignorance of fact.
I can accept that some people hold religious views against taking medicines. Some prefer to have their children home-schooled for a variety of reasons. I accept that too. Everyone has the right to accept or decline any medical treatment at all times. What bothers me is when people make assertions about the dangers of vaccines based on anecdotal evidence, when scientific studies and long medical practice has proved the assertions to be untrue. Vaccines are the cheapest, safest form of prevention of childhood diseases ever devised in all history. Statistically, they save more lives every year, at lower cost and with fewer risks than any other kind of medical treatment. Those are facts. You aren’t entitled to have opinions about fact.
It wasn’t always this way, having to educate patients about vaccines AFTER they get so sick they run to the doctor. Prior to the 1940s, pertussis used to kill thousands each year. People thanked God when the vaccine came on the scene. It cut the rate of disease by more than 90%! Folks back then knew by experience that once a baby developed the cough indicating the contagious stage, there wasn’t much in the way of treatment anyone could provide. THERE STILL ISN’T. Medicines will not alleviate the symptoms, and all antibiotics do is help to prevent an infected infant from spreading the disease to others. A young pertussis victim can cough for a month or more, all day and all night, and without the ability to rest some will cough themselves to death. Luckier ones will only develop pneumonia, or have seizures.
What’s the biggest fear we hear over and over about having infants vaccinated? People are afraid of mercury poisoning, because multi-use vials of vaccines contain thimerosal, a preservative that’s a mercury-based compound. Thimerosal was developed as a bactericide, and it’s very effective. Back in the days when vaccines were more subject to bacterial contamination during manufacture, shipping or storage, it was found to be the best way to keep the supply of medicine safe. It’s also much cheaper to make multi-use vials of vaccines. But we don’t vaccinate infants and children from multi-use vials. We haven’t for decades. Little ones always get the preservative-free version. So do people with any kind of immune system compromise, as well as any patient who requests a preservative-free shot.
Let’s go back to the fears about mercury poisoning. Mercury’s not good for the human body. We agree on that. Why is there mercury loose in the world where we can end up ingesting it? Half of it comes from natural sources such as volcanoes. The other half comes from human industrial activity. Two-thirds of the mercury humans put into the environment results from the stationary combustion of coal. There’s also some from refining gold and making cement, steel and other products. Those most at risk for mercury poisoning are workers in those industries, who may be exposed to it in the form of toxic vapors.
So, how do the rest of us that are not coal and steelworkers get too much mercury? The mercury from human and natural sources goes up into the atmosphere, comes down with rain into oceans, rivers and lakes, and is absorbed by the smallest organisms. Fish eat those, and some kinds of fish absorb and retain more mercury than others. Then we catch and eat the fish. You are thousands of times more likely to get mercury poisoning from eating those fish than you are from the itty-bitty amount in a vaccine, which you can always avoid by request. Want to lower the levels of toxic mercury in your world? Stop voting for any legislator that supports increasing coal technology, and quit eating any kind of tuna!
Some parents have other concerns about the pertussis vaccine based on old information proven false and inaccurate. In the 1970s and 80s there were news reports about a condition called pertussis vaccine encephalopathy, an infant brain injury supposedly caused by the shots. Negative publicity and fear mongering created the anti-vaccine movement, immunization rates fell here and in other countries, and the predictable result was a dramatic increase in incidences of the disease. The rate of this so-called side effect was still incredibly small, 50 or so cases out of 15 million immunizations, but public misconceptions and increased difficulty in getting liability insurance drove vaccine manufacturers away from making the original form of the pertussis vaccine. No studies ever proved a link between the DPT vaccine and brain damage, and the condition itself turned out to be an infantile form of epilepsy.
There are even some people who irrationally cling to the disproven belief that vaccines like this one can cause autism. First off, the claim about vaccine-induced autism was attributed only to the Measles-Mumps-Rubella (MMR) shots, not the pertussis vaccine. Secondly, the entire myth about the harm caused by the MMR vaccine rested on a single 1998 scientific paper published in The Lancet by a guy named Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield published fraudulent data. He lost his license over it, the Lancet has retracted it, and there’s litigation going on in several countries over deaths from the diseases, which increased once parents began avoiding vaccination. There’s nothing scientific connecting vaccines to autism.
There is quite a bit of nonsense out there written by people who don’t understand that two coincident facts don’t prove a cause and effect relationship. Saying that vaccination caused your baby’s condition because a diagnosis came after getting the shot proves nothing. One thing happened before the other is all. The infant schedule for the MMR vaccination is at 12-15 months. Autism symptoms are sometimes identifiable before then, but quite often not until age two or three. Many autistic children who’ve been vaccinated will have gotten them prior to the age they could be diagnosed.
Scientists in Japan came up with a newer, more effective formula for the combined Tetanus/Diptheria/acellular Pertussis vaccine, now designated “TDaP” in 1981. That’s the shot we’ve used in the U.S. since 1991. It doesn’t confer lifetime immunity, but it will protect 71-85% of infants for about six years, enough time to get them past the age where the disease is likely to cause serious or permanent damage. It’s important to get follow-up boosters at ages 4-6, 11-12, and again as adults, to prevent re-transmission to the growing number of non-immunized infants. People have continued to be misinformed about vaccines since the 80s, so pertussis cases have been increasing every year. It’s now the only vaccine-preventable disease in the U.S. with rising death rates.