A time for reflection and reason

Published 6:00 pm Thursday, August 21, 2008

By Staff
Ever since the successful polio vaccine campaign of the 1950s, we have been the beneficiaries of a safer society. Today, immunization programs protect us from 16 potentially devastating infectious diseases. August is National Immunization Month and a great time to reflect upon the current status of our effort to protect children from vaccine-preventable diseases.
As swimming pools remain full in these final weeks of summer, most of us are too young to remember polio epidemics and the real fear that children might catch polio in a community or neighborhood swimming pool. Today, we see fear on the faces of parents, but this fear is making it more likely that we will have epidemics of vaccine-preventable diseases in our society — parents are refusing to immunize their children because of fear generated by special-interest groups and media hype suggesting that vaccines cause more harm than good.
It is very important for families to trust their pediatricians instead of the zealots who believe, with no scientific evidence, that vaccines cause more harm than good. If the anti-vaccine trend continues to grow, we will surely have measles, mumps and whooping cough epidemics in our communities, and we will add to the one-quarter million deaths that occur from measles each year in the underdeveloped, unimmunized parts of our world. The United Kingdom has already declared measles to be endemic there, and one child died there in 2006 because of this vaccine-preventable disease.
The last, large measles epidemic in the U.S. occurred 19 years ago (55,000 cases, 11,000 hospitalizations, 130 deaths in 1989-1990). Concerns at that time arose about overall immunization rates and the excessive number of children who do not develop immunity after one dose of MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine. Therefore, the federal government established the Vaccines For Children Program, assuring better access to immunizations for indigent children, and it added a second dose of MMR vaccine to the childhood immunization schedule.
During the past year, measles has been on the rise in the U.S. with 130 cases documented, most all coming from unvaccinated persons visiting our country and spreading the disease to unvaccinated U.S. children. Indeed, epidemics of vaccine-preventable diseases, causing deaths of unfortunate children, are just a plane ride away.
Our vaccine safety system is extremely comprehensive. Before vaccines are approved for use in the general population, they undergo years of testing in all eligible age groups and in combination with all other vaccines that might be given at the same time as the newer vaccines. After approval by advisory groups that include physicians, government administrators, vaccine scientists and lay citizens, the recipients of vaccines are carefully tracked to assure vaccine safety. The Vaccine Injury Compensation Program was established in 1986 to compensate children who are possibly the victims of rare and unpredictable vaccine-related illness or injury. If a family refuses the award of the program (average award is about $1 million), the family can file a civil lawsuit.
I have been giving vaccines to children in our community for over 30 years and have never documented that a single child in our community suffered any permanent illness or injury because of a vaccine. All of my children and grandchildren have received nationally recommended vaccines according to the schedule endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Pediatricians are not afraid of the truth — if we thought that childhood vaccines were injuring our children, we would be the first to work for change in the immunization program. Indeed, there have been no less than five significant changes made in the program in the last 15 years, which allowed the immunization system to become even safer.
As we reflect upon the most successful public health programs in the history of mankind, the childhood vaccine program rises immediately to the top — there has never been such a dramatic improvement in public health from any one intervention as was documented during the childhood immunization campaign of the 20th century. Pediatricians want all children to benefit from this marvelous child health program. Please take time to talk with your pediatrician about childhood vaccines so you can receive good scientific information about the safety and effectiveness of childhood vaccines and not allow your children to suffer the effects of vaccine-preventable diseases. Thank you for giving serious thought to these issues during National Immunization Month.
Dave Tayloe Jr., MD, FAAP, president-elect of the American Academy of Pediatrics, is a former Washington resident.
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