Dr. Richard Feldman: Old cemeteries show lives cut short before vaccines

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FeldmanThe recent outbreaks of measles in Washington, New York and 13 other states are stark reminders of the importance of vaccinations to our health. More than 150 cases have been confirmed in one New York county alone, with 400 cases nationwide.

Each year, there are measles outbreaks largely caused by international travelers who contract measles and bring it into America, primarily infecting unvaccinated communities or pockets of unvaccinated people, predominantly children.

Just the measles? Measles is one of the major causes of child mortality worldwide.

In 2018, there were 17 outbreaks; in 2017, Minnesota experienced a 75-case outbreak; and in 2015, a large, 147-case outbreak originated at Disneyland, then spread to multiple states. In 2014, there were 23 measles outbreaks in 27 states, totaling 667 cases.

During the 20th century, the average life span increased by 30 years due to advancements in public health. Much of this resulted from the massive program to vaccinate all children for various diseases, including smallpox (eliminated entirely from the world due to vaccination), measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, tetanus, polio and whooping cough. There are also now immunizations against Haemophilus influenzae, meningococcal disease, pneumonia, influenza and rotavirus.

Many children previously died or were forever impaired by these diseases. Imagine, just 70 years ago, parents dreaded every summer that their children might be crippled by polio, so they avoided swimming pools, movie theaters and other gatherings.

The internet has been a huge source of misinformation and pseudoscience regarding vaccine dangers. It is unfortunate that some parents exposed to this misinformation refuse to allow their children to become immunized or insist on alternate schedules that delay protection. This information is spread among friends and diffuses widely into the population.

It is astonishing that some parents prefer to believe internet anti-vaccine sources rather than their own physicians, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and trusted academic medical-centers. Some believe physicians, vaccine manufacturers and other entities are engaged in a conspiracy to hide the truth regarding vaccines.

If one believes there is a conspiracy, then there is no convincing. Better to focus on those with fears or who are “on the fence” regarding vaccines.

Vaccines, like any medication, might have rare side effects. However, dozens of large, credible mainstream scientific studies (including a recent huge Danish study) have proven that vaccines, the number of immunizations, and all added components are very safe and do not cause autism. Specifically, the scare that the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine causes autism was fueled by the completely fabricated research of Dr. Andrew Wakefield, despicably motivated by personal greed. He was completely discredited and lost his British medical license.

When I encounter vaccine hesitancy, I ask parents to go to an old cemetery. They will see an astonishing number of tombstones of children, many of whom died of vaccine-preventable diseases today. The deaths of young, healthy people were just an unfortunate fact of everyday life. It is easy to take vaccines for granted since their very success, the elimination of diseases, makes their value invisible. It’s hard to appreciate what one does not experience.

Measles was officially eliminated from the United States in 2000, but because of lowered immunization rates in some communities (partly due to opt-out statutes in some states for philosophical or personal beliefs), it again persists today.

Immunizations are one of the true miracles of modern medicine and continued high vaccination rates are essential for the common good.•


Feldman is a family physician, author, lecturer and former Indiana State Department of Health commissioner for Gov. Frank O’Bannon. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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