Kids Love Dr. Barton

Vaccinations Reduce Infections and Save Lives

by Dr. Douglas Barton, M.D., Pediatrician 10/06/2008

So what’s the big deal if my child catches a vaccine-preventable disease? Chickenpox has never been a scary illness. Most kids get better from it, don’t they? Even in this blog, it’s difficult to address all the vaccine-preventable illnesses. But let’s try some of the biggies.

Measles: At the height of measles infections in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control calculated that there were between 2 and 3 million cases of measles annually. This was in the 1950s. Measles has a rate of brain infection (encephalitis) of 1 percent to 2 percent, so 2,000 to 3,000 people annually had brain infections. The death rate is 1 percent. That doesn’t sound so bad…except when you’re talking about 2 million infections. That’s 2,000 deaths annually due to measles alone! There have been 130 cases in several small outbreaks of the disease this year through June. Each outbreak began when an unvaccinated individual traveled overseas, caught the disease and brought it back to the United States. Ninety percent of individuals who caught the measles in the United States had not been vaccinated.

Whooping cough: Whooping cough, also known as Pertussis, is a nuisance illness for most of us. Once you’re about five years of age or older, the symptoms resemble those of a long-lasting cold. The rough part is that the cough lingers for weeks and, if it persists, can cause chest pain and a feeling that you can’t quite catch your breath. In children under five, however, this feeling of not being able to catch your breath actually can become an inability to breath. Oxygen levels are lower and pneumonia develops 10 percent to 20 percent of the time. Pneumonia is the most common cause of death in these cases. In infants 6 months and under, another complication is apnea. The bacteria can cause the brain to not send a signal to the body to breath! Pertussis resulted in 39 deaths in the United States in 2005 -- 32 of those were in infants younger than 6 months old. Since the vaccine only lasts about 10 years, it is now recommended that adolescents get vaccinated so they don’t spread the illness to infants.

Chickenpox: Also a nuisance illness for most of us. However, did you know that up to 10 percent of cases have a significant complication? Severe skin infections are most common.  Pneumonia and encephalitis are also possible. Absolute numbers of deaths due to chickenpox are difficult to obtain, but before vaccination, it appears there were about 100 deaths annually due to chickenpox complications, mostly in otherwise healthy individuals. That number is now down to about 50 or so. Not perfect, but the vaccine saves lives.

Each disease currently vaccinated against has similar surprising complication and death rates. Polio, haemophilus influenzae, pneumococcus, rotavirus, tetanus, hepatitis A and B, and herpes each have similar stories. The numbers may be different, but vaccination has been shown to markedly lower the number of infections and with that reduction came a marked decrease in number of deaths.




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