Doctor’s Tip: Immunizations are safe and important

Dr. Greg Feinsinger
Doctor’s Tip

The original version of this column ran in the PI on Nov. 14, 2017.

Recently, immunizations and lack thereof have been in the news. Nicolette Toussaint recently wrote a column in the Sopris Sun about how she developed severe, permanent hearing loss as a complication of childhood measles — a disease that is prevented by immunizations that have been developed since she was a child — but which is making a resurgence due to parents failing to immunize their children.

It’s been said that instead of a health care system America has an expensive disease management system — we wait until preventable diseases occur and then spend billions of dollars managing them. There is one shining example of how our system should work: immunizations — which save millions of lives, prevent millions of cases of disability (e.g. deafness from measles, birth defects from Rubella), and save the health care system billions of dollars.

Vaccine, used for immunization, is defined as “a suspension of attenuated or killed microorganisms (bacteria, viruses or rickettsia), or of antigenic proteins derived from them, administered for the prevention … or treatment of infectious diseases.” In other words, vaccines mobilize our natural defense mechanisms, resulting in antibodies that prevent disease, without causing us to experience the disease. In underdeveloped countries, infectious diseases are still a major cause of death and disability, and this was once true in our country. But immunizations changed that.

In 1900 there were 21,064 cases of smallpox in the U.S., resulting in 894 deaths. In 1920 there were 469,924 cases of measles, resulting in 7,575 deaths. In 1920 there were 147,991 cases of diphtheria, with 13,170 deaths. In 1922 there were 107,473 cases of pertussis (whooping cough) with 5,099 deaths. From 1951 to 1954 there were an average of 16,316 cases of paralytic polio annually, resulting in 1,879 deaths. Prior to introduction in 1987 of the Hib vaccine against the Hemophilus bacteria, there were 20,000 cases of childhood infection a year, causing meningitis and mental retardation and many deaths. Since vaccines were introduced for these and other diseases, they have almost disappeared in the U.S. There has not been a case of polio in the U.S. since 1979, and smallpox was eradicated worldwide in 1977.

There are two vaccines that prevent cancer. One is the HPV vaccine, which prevents the sexually-transmitted wart virus that is the cause of cancer of the cervix and which can also cause cancer of the mouth and throat via oral sex. The other is the hepatitis B vaccine — chronic hepatitis B causes liver cancer.

Are vaccines safe? The answer is yes, extremely safe. Minor irritation at the injection site is common with many types of immunization. Children can experience post-immunization irritability and fever, but these symptoms are less common since the introduction of the acellular pertussis vaccine (part of the DPT — diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus — shot). Serious side effects from vaccines, such as severe allergic reactions, have an incidence of approximately one per 1 million vaccinations, and can usually be successfully treated. I tell patients that getting immunized is like wearing seat belts — very rarely someone drowns in a car accident when their car goes into a river and they can’t get their seat belt off, but almost always it’s safest to wear seatbelts.

Unfortunately, there is a small but vocal group of people, including many alternative providers, who make unfounded claims on the internet and elsewhere about alleged harm from vaccinations. Several years ago a British scientist wrote a paper claiming a link between autism and the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella or German measles) vaccine. Subsequently his paper was found to be a hoax, and multiple subsequent studies have failed to show such a link. However, it has taken time to educate the public about the truth.

I recall in the 1950s lining up to get the polio vaccine, and the relief my and other parents felt knowing that their kids would never come down with dreaded paralytic polio. As a freshman medical student in Denver in 1965 I looked in a room at Colorado General Hospital that was filled with iron lung machines, used for patients who couldn’t breathe due to paralytic polio. This was a few years after essentially everyone in the U.S. had been immunized against polio, so these machines were no longer needed. There are multiple infectious diseases that we no longer have to worry about, because of the success of immunization programs in this country. If we travel to underdeveloped countries, especially the tropics, we can get immunized against infectious diseases that are still prevalent there, such as cholera and yellow fever. And thanks to the WHO (World Health Organization) many people in underdeveloped countries are getting immunized. To see if you or your child are up to date on immunizations, check with your primary care provider, with a county public health department, or on the CDC (Center for Disease Control) website.

In his book “Mistreated,” Dr. Robert Pearl says that “extending the full benefits of immunization to every person worldwide by 2020 would prevent an estimated 20 million deaths — mostly in children — and untold suffering from blindness, paralysis, and deafness for millions more.”

Retired physician Greg Feinsinger, M.D., is author of new book “Enjoy Optimal Health, 98 Health Tips From a Family Doctor,” available on Amazon and in local bookstores. Profits go towards an endowment to the University of Colorado School of Medicine to add prevention and nutrition to the curriculum. He is available for free consultations about heart attack prevention, diabetes reversal, nutrition, and other health issues. Call 379-5718 for an appointment. For questions about his column, email gfeinsinger@comcast.net .

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