Once-eradicated diseases sadly making return

Posted Thursday, Sep. 19, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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It’s become too easy for us to forget the horrors of a disease such as polio, which as recently as the 1950s crippled about 35,000 Americans each year. Today, there is no naturally occurring polio anywhere in the United States.

This public health victory, like so many others, was won with smart science and a successful vaccination program.

That’s why it’s so distressing — for pediatricians, public health experts and parents — to learn about the resurgence in Texas of measles and whooping cough, two diseases that effective vaccination programs have virtually eliminated from our society. These recent local outbreaks of preventable diseases should serve as a wake-up call for you and your children to get vaccinated.

Earlier this month, the Texas Department of State Health Services issued a health alert after an analysis showed that cases of whooping cough, also known as pertussis, are on pace to reach a 50-year high. About a quarter of the roughly 2,000 cases statewide were in Tarrant County, concentrated largely in Arlington and Fort Worth.

In addition, an outbreak of measles has affected 16 individuals in the county. Tarrant County Public Health reported that in 11 of those cases, patients had no immunizations against the disease. The rest could not document their immunization status.

We may think these diseases no longer strike down our children, ignoring, for example, that 18 people died from pertussis in the United States last year. And we may forget the shattering effects such diseases once had on families and communities. Not seeing a disease for decades tends to lower one’s guard.

To battle this complacency, some apparently still need a full dosage of facts.

Vaccines are simply a means of teaching our bodies to recognize specific bacteria or viruses and allowing our bodies to develop an appropriate immune response. I tell patients that a vaccine is akin to an FBI file that gives your immune system enough information to know what to look for. As time passes, that file gets outdated — and that’s when a booster shot is needed.

I’m often asked about the right immunization schedule, about the presence of mercury in preservatives found in vaccines and, most commonly, whether there is a link between vaccines and autism. (There isn’t one. This has been disproven by major medical groups and dozens of studies, and retracted by the journal that originally published it.)

You should certainly consult your child’s pediatrician about any concerns. But the simple truth about vaccines is that their success in protecting children from 14 serious diseases is one of the top achievements in the history of public health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the United States has the safest and most effective supply of vaccines in its history.

Within the medical community, there is no doubt about the value and wisdom of vaccinations. They’ve been used to defeat smallpox and dramatically decrease the incidence of polio, diphtheria, tetanus and, yes, measles and whooping cough.

Vaccines are the reason we rarely see such diseases anymore. Let’s do our part to keep it that way.

Dr. Sarah Matches is an assistant professor of pediatrics at UNT Health Science Center in Fort Worth. Sarah.Matches@unthsc.edu

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