Public health is one of America’s great accomplishments. It is difficult in 2018 to imagine a time when cities and towns commonly had open sewers. Or a time when diseases such as whooping cough, measles, tuberculosis, influenza and polio cut broad swaths through the U.S. population.
These days one seldom hears the word “sanitarian.” Historically, these were the people who made great strides in cleaning up our cities and towns.
Americans broadly think little of public health these days. If anything, we demean public health through the budget process.
Too many Americans have also forgotten the effects of childhood vaccinations — another of public health’s great accomplishments. Paris Achen of our statehouse bureau recently reported that the percent of Oregon parents declining vaccination for their children has ticked upward. This is in the face of the 2013 Oregon Legislature, which made the process of opting out of childhood vaccination more difficult. The new law requires an education process prior to opting out.
But, as Achen reported, “…(E)ducation efforts face a daunting popular culture belief that immunizations can cause autism and other problems.” A 1998 article in the British medical journal The Lancet became the touchstone for those with fear of childhood vaccinations. It asserted that vaccination was linked to an incidence of autism.
Though that research was debunked 12 years later by considerable peer review, the power of social media keeps the bogus theory alive.
Some parents also maintain an illusion that their children have “good immunity” and thus do not need protection from disease. In fact children, pregnant women and older adults have less robust immune response to any infectious agent.
With more unvaccinated children and adults in the population, there have been outbreaks of measles and even whooping cough. Achen noted that, “More than a dozen students in Lane County, including two at the University of Oregon in Eugene, contracted whooping cough earlier this spring. In December, about a dozen cases of the disease were reported at schools in Clark County, Washington.”
The Center for Disease Control reports that, “2012 was the record year with more the 48,000 cases of whooping cough, the most cases that CDC has seen in the past 60 years. Prior to vaccinations the US had 200,000 cases per year.”
The CDC notes that most of the deaths each year are in babies younger than 3 months of age. Even healthy babies can be very ill because of an immature immune system that is still developing. It is important that pregnant women get the whooping cough vaccine during each pregnancy, so that the mother transfers the greatest amount of protective antibodies to her child.
It is important to note that babies with whooping cough don’t cough at all, the CDC said. Instead, it causes them to stop breathing and turn blue. Other complications include violent, uncontrolled shaking, life-threatening pauses in breathing, and brain disease.
It is useful to remember the past. For instance, it is common in pioneer cemeteries to see a row of headstones marking children’s deaths in one winter from chicken pox and whooping cough.
The scientific philosophy of immunizing most of the population is to keep the incidence of disease at a minimum. That is because there always are people in the population with poor immune systems to fight off bacteria and viruses that cause communicable diseases. Those include babies, children, pregnant women and older adults, as well as people with chronic diseases and cancer. Health care workers are immunized to help ensure that they do not pass communicable diseases to patients who are often in compromised health status.
Thus vaccines were developed to save lives. We are fools to forget that.