The average life span of Americans has grown by over 30 years since 1900.  One in ten infants never saw their first birthday in 1900.  Most people think that wonder drugs and our superior treatments did these things.  When you really look at what changed the face of medicine really two things made the biggest impact.  The first one is good sanitation (clean food and water).  The second one is vaccinations. Since I am a doctor, and not a sanitation engineer, and since vaccines have gotten a lot of bad press lately, I figured I would write about vaccines.

According to The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the number of children affected by vaccine-preventable diseases before the vaccines were available was staggering. For example:

  • 10,000 children per year were paralyzed from polio.
  • 20,000 newborns per year had birth defects and mental retardation from Rubella.
  • Measles affected 4 million children every year and killed 3,000 of them.
  • Diphtheria was the most common cause of death in school aged children.
  • 15,000 children per year contracted meningitis from Hib, causing permanent brain damage.
  • Pertussis (“whooping cough”) killed thousands of infants every year.

These numbers would be even worse in today’s population, and this is just a small list of the things we vaccinate children for.

Vaccines have really changed the face of health care. These changes are all great, but they have also brought with them a sense of complacency.  Many parents think that they don’t need to vaccinate their children because they don’t hear about these diseases anymore.  The fact is that many of these diseases are in America right now.  There have continued to be outbreaks of measles, pertussis, mumps, and other vaccine preventable diseases in America on a regular basis. The globe has also become “smaller,” and every day foreign travelers risk bringing many diseases that are not well controlled in other countries into the United States. During training, I still saw children with many preventable diseases, including pertussis, influenza, Pneumococcal meningitis, and tetanus, to name a few.

There has been much concern over thimerosol, a preservative that used to be in vaccines.   Blame for autism has been placed on thimerosol.  The rate for autism continues to rise despite thimerosol being removed from all routine vaccines years ago.  No link has been proven between vaccines and autism even with many studies being done.

The decision to add and to continue to recommend a vaccine is not taken lightly by the officials at the Food and Drug Administration or the Centers for Disease Control.  Vaccines can be expensive and the do have side effects.  The good news is that some the best scientific minds in the country look at the data and decide if the expense and risk is really going to keep our children any safer.  They even created a system to report any side effects of vaccines so they can continue to evaluate the safety of these vaccines.

There is a lot of information out there about vaccines. Some of the information is good, but a lot if it is not based on good science.  I have included some web sites that are high-quality; many of them were used to write this article.  Please also feel free to ask your health provider for further information, and please vaccinate your baby. It might just save their life!