The start of another school year is looming and by now hopefully you have bought a few school clothes, an assortment of notebooks and pens, perhaps a backpack and freedom from disease.
Yes, freedom from disease. Did you know that belongs on your back-to-school list? We call them immunizations and these days we seem to talk more about immunization fears than about diseases they prevent. That is a luxury.
Despite 30 years of research on a population group so huge that any association with vaccine-caused disease would be spectacularly obvious, we still don’t have a shred of evidence that autism or related issues are caused by vaccines. But we sure know of some diseases that are vaccine preventable.
One of the first vaccines that really changed the world was the Salk vaccine for polio 60 years ago. Polio was an infection of the intestinal tract, which was highly contagious and had the nasty habit of damaging the nerves in the spinal cord and brain. This damage resulted in weakness, paralysis or permanent brain damage. Three doses of vaccine when young will make over 99% of people immune. Compare that to a lifetime in a wheelchair or iron- lung (we call them ventilators these days). Polio vaccine isn’t a hard sell.
Of more recent vintage we have a meningitis vaccine (H Flu). This germ was responsible for a lot of miserable kids: upper respiratory colds, bronchitis or ear infection. But occasionally severe pneumonia, or meningitis, even caused death. A very small amount of vaccine and all of that goes away.
A 3-in-1 vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella has almost completely banished them from the U.S. and most of the developed world.
Talking about infectious disease, public health likes to talk about herd immunity, and they’re not talking Big Macs. This is about people as a herd. Infections are tough to control because they are easily passed from person to person, often before they even know they are sick (due to an incubation period when they feel OK). Infectious germs don’t live indefinitely in one person. The person either conquers the infection or dies of it. In either case the germ dies, unless it can find a new victim. Once a high percentage of the population is immune to the illness, someone infected would probably not encounter anyone to give it to. You don’t need everyone to be immune for everybody to benefit.
Now medicine is starting to think of vaccines in new and exciting ways. Research identified a specific virus (human papilloma virus) as a major cause of cervical cancer. A vaccine was developed to immunize against HPV infections and is being given to virtually all young women. These women who received the vaccine before becoming sexually active will never be infected by HPV and will never have cervical cancer. The HPV Vaccine is the first “cancer vaccine.”
Many scientists who specialize in immunology and cancer believe this is the future of cancer – we will use vaccines to teach your body’s defenses not to let cancer even start. Anyone who has ever had cancer cut out, radiated or poisoned with chemotherapy will appreciate the simple elegance of a vaccine to not let it start.
So when the school nurse tells you that your child needs a vaccine, spend a moment thinking about the disease it prevents, and thank her for reminding you.
Take care and don’t forget to get your flu shot.
Donald Bucklin, MD (Dr. B) is a Regional Medical Director for U.S. HealthWorks and has been practicing clinical occupational medicine for more than 25 years. Dr. B. works in our Scottsdale, Arizona clinic.