The Best Advantage for a Healthy Life

Earlier this week, we posted this video from VaxNorthwest on our Facebook page. Not only is this family of five adorable, but they are offering a gift to the world by sharing their positive story of prevention. Most young mothers have never seen anyone affected by the diseases that vaccines protect our children against. We don’t see these diseases as often anymore because we vaccinate. What we do see is what happens when we don’t.  And that’s precisely why Brian, the father of the three kiddos in this video, is proud to vaccinate his kids. He wants to give his children every advantage that he can.

Stories are powerful, and peer-to-peer information sharing guides many of the decisions that parents make. We could share hard data with you for weeks straight about the benefit and safety of vaccines, but for many, stories matter just as much, if not more. Share your stories, and share them often. Proudly post a #flushotselfie on social media or mention to your friends that your teenager has finished all three doses of the HPV vaccine.  Tell your mom’s group how great it feels to have your baby on the recommended vaccine schedule. Be proud that you vaccinate, because you’re giving your baby the best advantage for a healthy life.  

Have you heard these “toxic” vaccine myths?

This post originally appeared on HealthMap’s Disease Daily on August 4, 2014. It has been reposted here with permission from the authors.

Douglas Muth

Image by Douglas Muth

By Robyn Correll Carlyle and Jane Huston 

Do you know you what makes a toxin a toxin? It’s not scary sounding names, news headlines, or anecdotes.

What makes a toxin a toxin is good old-fashioned biochemistry. The human body can be disrupted — or bolstered — by the same compound at different doses. Quantity and context count.

Even so, complicated chemical names have become synonymous with all things artificial, unnatural or unhealthy. But dihydrogen monoxide, after all, is just water (H2O).

When people claim that vaccines contain “toxins,” they are often referring to these three vaccine ingredients: mercury-containing thimerosal, aluminum and formaldehyde. But these ingredients are not as toxic as you might think. Here’s why.

Yes, there’s mercury in vaccines, but not the kind you’re thinking of.

Fun fact: there are actually multiple types of mercury compounds. One (methylmercury) is the kind found in tuna and has been shown to have devastating effects on the brain after it accumulates in the human body. A second (ethylmercury) is found in a preservative known as thimerosal, which has been used to protect vaccines from getting contaminated. The latter is processed more quickly by the body and requires much larger doses to cause harm.

The difference between methylmercury and ethylmercury is a lot like the difference between a shot of alcohol and a shot of antifreeze — one can make you blind drunk, the other will make you blind. Chemistry matters. To the human body, “methyl” and “ethyl” are very, very different.

Ethylmercury-containing thimerosal has a very long track record of safely and effectively preventing fungal or bacterial contamination of vaccines. The ingredient was removed preemptively from all routinely used childhood vaccines in 2001, but it needn’t have been. Studies have shown that thimerosal-containing vaccines are safe, with no ill effect beyond the standard pain or redness at the injection site.

There’s 10 times more aluminum in baby formula than in vaccines.

What’s ironic about occasional opposition to aluminum from the “green our vaccines” movement is that aluminium is the third most abundant element on the planet. It’s in food, water, air, herbs, pancake mixes, baby formula — even breast milk. It’s hard to imagine a more natural substance.

Exclusively breast-fed babies ingest over twice as much aluminum in the first six months of life as the sum of all routinely recommended vaccines combined. The science is conclusive: vaccines do not have any measurable effect on the amount of aluminum in the bloodstream of babies.

Aluminum salts have been used in vaccines since the late 1930s — that’s more than 70 years of accumulated safety data. We have a longer history of safety data on aluminum salts than we do on Tylenol™.

We use aluminum salts in vaccines because they help stimulate the immune system. They make vaccines more effective so that we can reduce not only the number of antigens, but also the number of doses you need to be protected. That means fewer shots.

Our bodies naturally produce formaldehyde.

You might think of formaldehyde as that smelly chemical that preserved the frog in your 10th grade biology class. But your body actually makes it.

Don’t believe me? Ask the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry: “Formaldehyde is naturally produced in very small amounts in our bodies as a part of our normal, everyday metabolism and causes us no harm.”

It’s an essential component in the synthesis of DNA and creation of proteins. In fact, a healthy baby already has 10 times more natural formaldehyde in their system than any one vaccine dose contains. Your body is making it right now.

It can be introduced into the body through the air we breathe or the food we eat. The reason we use formaldehyde in the vaccine development process is to deactivate or kill pathogens (the agents that cause disease). While extremely large quantities of formaldehyde can be hazardous, most of the formaldehyde used in the vaccine development process is removed well before the patient gets the vaccine. The trace amounts of formaldehyde that remain are quickly broken down by the body’s defenses.

The bottom line is that vaccines and all their ingredients have been well-tested and established to be very safe. Don’t let the myths around toxins or vaccine ingredients scare you.

Jane manages the Vaccine Finder project at Health Map, the host site of the Disease Daily. Robyn is a contributing writer for the Disease Daily and works as a project manager for a non-profit focused on vaccine education. Both are fully up-to-date on their immunizations.

The Best Awful Thing I’ve Ever Done for My Baby

Hannah and Mia

Hannah and Mia

By Hannah Richards

This happens to almost every new parent. I know it does. Because the nice nurse at the front desk of Intermed Pediatrics told me so when I came running out of the exam room with tears and mascara all over my face and breastmilk squirting through the front of my shirt.

Your child goes to the doctor’s office for their first set of vaccines, and the smiling nurse assistant comes waltzing in with fun BandAids and a teddy bear toy, and they stick 3 or 4 needles into your baby’s itty bitty thighs and….nothing happens.

It’s kind of like time stops….and the room becomes completely silent.

And then…it happens.

Screaming unlike any screaming you’ve ever heard. A scream that could not possibly be coming from lungs that small. And the nurses start blowing gently in your baby’s face to remind them to breathe in. And you realize that this could quite possibly be the first time your little bundle of joy has ever felt pain. And by the time you can curb all of your sobbing and pull the daggers of guilt out of your heart – you realize that your adorable baby is sleeping peacefully in your arms.

Getting vaccines is not fun. For anyone. Mostly for mom. But I’ll tell you what is much, much worse.


And Hepatitis – and Meningitis and Polio and Pertussis and a bunch of other diseases that most babies in the United States will never have to experience thanks to vaccines. As long as we keep up with them, that is.

Now this is coming from someone who won’t even take Asprin for a headache because I am generally distrustful of drugs. I grew up on homeopathic remedies and breastmilk. BUT, I always had all of my vaccines. And my daughter will too. Because kids still die from diseases that have no business even existing anymore. And like most parents, I would literally give my life to protect her. Vaccines just happen to be way easier.

Since I’m not a doctor, scientist or immunologist, I’m not going to elaborate any further about the safety of vaccines or how incredibly important they are. But if you’re interested, there is some excellent research here and here.

Instead I will offer all of the new moms (and dads) out there some tips we’ve picked up along the way for making those ouchy little life-saving shots more tolerable for everyone. Here we go:

1. If you are breastfeeding, ask the nurse if you can breastfeed your child while they give them their shots. Breastfeeding is seriously a miracle cure for all things (skin rashes, eye infections, chapped nipples, etc.) – and shots are no exception. As soon as I learned this little tip, Mia’s crying time during shots went from 3-5 minutes to nothing at all.

2. If you are not breastfeeding, ask to hold your baby in your lap during the shots, and offer a bottle or pacifier. Again, I am not a doctor, but my personal experience would indicate that the sucking motion is an extremely soothing exercise for babies – and when they are sucking, they are not screaming.

3. Ask Dad to come with you. I don’t know why this is true, but when my daughter Mia was an infant her daddy always had the magic touch for calming her down. I think it was because he was able to keep his cool, whereas I was bubbling over with anxiety and fear – and Mia could feel it. Also, since I was breastfeeding, anytime she was in my arms, but not currently nursing, she got very, very angry.

4. Go easy the rest of the day. Mia was always a little bit sleepy (hallelujah!) on the days she got her vaccines. So I let her spend a



little bit more time in her swing or in my arms, just rocking or nursing. The nap schedule and feeding schedule went out the window on vaccine days, and I limited visitors. I chose not to give her Tylenol (even when she had a slight fever) because our doctor told us the fever was a good sign of her body developing antibodies, and that we should let it do its thing. However, if your baby is really uncomfortable you should do what feels right, or as your doctor advises.

5. Know your baby. All babies are different, and they all react slightly differently to vaccines. Some barely notice or care, others get uncomfortable, or sore – or a fever. Don’t try to compare your baby’s reaction to someone else’s – or worse – Dr. Google. Instead, trust your instinct and your knowledge of your own baby, and keep in touch with your baby’s doctor if you have questions.

The bottom line is that vaccines are hard. They can be painful for baby, and even more so for parents – and they can make the already difficult job of caring for a newborn even more tenuous. But they are the best awful thing you will ever have to do for your baby – and for everyone else’s babies. Especially those too small, or too weak or too immunocompromised to receive vaccines themselves.

I am incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to receive such advanced and lifesaving healthcare for myself and my baby. I do not, and will not ever take that for granted.

For more great posts by Hannah, check out her blog Oh Baby Richards.


You might owe your life to Maurice Hilleman. So why don’t you know who he is?

by Eric Ward, October 2007

by Eric Ward, October 2007

This article originally appeared on HealthMap’s Disease Daily on June 10, 2014. It has been reposted here with permission by the authors. 

By Robyn Correll Carlyle and Jane Huston


“If I had to name a person who has done more for the benefit of human health, with less recognition than anyone else, it would be Maurice Hilleman. Maurice should be recognized as the most successful vaccinologist in history.”- Robert Gallo, co-discoverer of HIV

When you think of famous names in immunization (assuming you’re a vaccinerd, and prone to thinking of such things), you probably think first of Edward Jenner, creator of the smallpox vaccine. The next name might be Jonas Salk, the celebrated scientist who developed the first polio vaccine. You might have to think for quite a while before Maurice Hilleman comes to mind… or you might be thinking Maurice Hille-who?

Yet Hilleman is a veritable superstar in the world of vaccines, with more vaccines to his name than Beyoncé has #1 hits. While Hilleman never won a Nobel Prize or had his name in lights, he was revered by his peers in the scientific community and is credited for saving tens of millions of lives — maybe even yours.

And it all started on a farm in Montana.

Hilleman was born in 1919. Having lost his mother days after his birth, he was raised by his uncle and worked on the farm. He took an early interest in science and graduated first in his class at Montana State University with a degree in chemistry and microbiology. Later, he earned his doctoral degree in microbiology from the University of Chicago, where (fun fact) his graduate work led him to determine the true cause of chlamydia and laid the groundwork for discovering its treatment.

He helped develop his first human vaccine in 1944 to protect American soldiers overseas from Japanese encephalitis. The vaccine would eventually be replaced by others, but Hilleman was just getting started with what would be a long career in vaccinology.

We won’t tell you his full story — you can get the cliff notes here or a more detailed account in his biography. But trust us, it’s impressive.

He developed eight of the 14 currently routinely recommended vaccines and is the reason we are protected from measles, mumps, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, chickenpox, meningococcal disease, pneumococcal disease, and Haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib). Thanks to him, diseases that once claimed children’s lives or left them with severe disabilities are now largely a distant memory. During his career, Hilleman developed a total of 36 vaccines, making him perhaps the most successful vaccinologist in history.

So why haven’t you heard of him?

Hilleman was not one to brag. He didn’t name any of his discoveries after himself. He never sought recognition. He accepted praise humbly and quietly.

But perhaps the greatest reason why his name is largely unknown is because the successes that he achieved were silent. When public health practitioners do their job, the results look like… nothing. No one gets sick. Diseases don’t spread. Children don’t die. Life pretty much goes on as normal. But behind the scenes, there’s actually lot of work that goes into preventing kids from getting measles, or containing an outbreak of hepatitis A, or delivering clean drinking water to your home. All of those things are public health, and all of them are easy to take for granted.

And we have taken them for granted.

Right now, we’re in the midst of a cascade of vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks. Measles, a disease once declared officially eliminated from the United States, is popping up left and right. According to the CDC, there have been over 334 cases this year in the United States alone, the most in a single year since the disease was declared eliminated in 2000 — and we’re not even half way through the year yet. Ninety percent of those cases occurred in unvaccinated people or people with unknown vaccination status. Measles may not be circulating in the United States the same way it was pre-2000, but we’re still vulnerable to travelers importing the virus from other countries, as what’s happened so far in 2014 clearly shows.

That vulnerability is why it’s so important to keep our vaccination rates high, and to bring up coverage in any corners of this country where rates are low. Encourage your friends and family to check to see if they’re up-to-date on their vaccinations. If some of them have concerns, guide them to trusted, science-based resources like the CDC, World Health Organization or the American Academy of Pediatrics, and encourage them to speak with their primary care provider.

Every time you think, speak or advocate for measles immunization, you’re shining a little light on Maurice Hilleman and his amazing career. And while he may not have received as much recognition as he deserved while he was alive, we can still honor him and his accomplishments by protecting the hard-fought progress made in the fight against preventable disease.

Jane manages the Vaccine Finder project at Health Map, the host site of the Disease Daily. Robyn is a contributing writer for the Disease Daily and works as a project manager for The Immunization Partnership. Both are fully up-to-date on their immunizations.

What public health threats are scarier than ebola?

You might have heard a lot on the news lately about the ebola outbreak in West Africa. There have been roughly 7,500 cases and 3,500 deaths so far this year, with no sign of slow down. And now with a case in Texas, many people are concerned about this potential public health threat.

But not to worry. Dr. Thomas Frieden of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told “This Week” anchor George Stephanopoulos he was confident that the single case in North Texas would not ignite an outbreak like that raging in West Africa.

“Here in the U.S., I remain quite confident we will not have a widespread outbreak,” he said. “We will stop it in its tracks, because we’ve got infection control in hospitals and public health that tracks and isolates people if they get symptoms.”

We can all breathe a little easier knowing that.

So if we don’t need to worry about ebola, what should we be worrying about?

The Immunization Partnership‘s President and CEO Anna C. Dragsbaek outlined 5 public health threats in Texas that are scarier than ebola in an op ed published in Texas Tribune’s Trib Talk on October 1, 2014:

5 public health threats in Texas scarier than Ebola

By , Oct. 1, 2014


There’s no doubt about it: Ebola is scary.

The disease has a high mortality rate and no known cure. No vaccine is available to halt its spread. And now it has arrived in Dallas — the first confirmed case in the U.S.

A media firestorm is brewing, and the public is understandably concerned. But the threat of Ebola spreading in the U.S. is nominal. Highly advanced disease surveillance systems, well-developed quarantine and isolation laws, adequate hygiene and sanitation, and top-notch medical services will keep the U.S. from facing a crisis similar to the one sweeping through West Africa.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be worried about infectious diseases. In fact, there are at least five other preventable threats right now that are far more menacing — and Texans would be wise to pay close attention to them.

1. Influenza: Last year, widespread influenza in Texas led to the deaths of 20 children, most of whom were unvaccinated. The flu vaccine is widely available through clinics, workplaces, churches, commercial pharmacies and schools, but influenza vaccination rates among adults in Texas remain low. In Texas, only one in three young adults (who are most likely to have small children in the home and to transmit the virus to them) were immunized against influenza last season. Children died not from a rare infectious disease but from a vaccine-preventable disease that we didn’t protect them from.

2. Pertussis: In 2013, Texas reported 3,985 cases of pertussis, or whooping cough — more than any other state in the U.S. This disease is particularly dangerous for infants, which is why the vaccine is recommended for pregnant women and caregivers. Yet only about one in four adults who live with infants have been immunized against it.

3. Neglected tropical diseases: Chagas, Chikungunya, dengue and other so-called neglected tropical diseases, or NTDs, are all circulating in Texas. Several of these diseases cause long-term disabilities and even heart defects. Yet despite the potentially devastating impact of NTDs, doctors don’t always diagnose them properly, and many cases go unreported due to inadequate surveillance and a lack of funding for vaccine development. To determine the true burden of disease, the Texas Legislature should appropriate funds to expand the capacities of existing clinics to detect a host of NTD threats.

4. Measles: So far this year, 595 cases of measles have been reported nationally — as many as the previous five years combined and the highest number in 20 years. Texas has seen its share of cases, with outbreaks in Tarrant County and a few cases in Houston. Unlike Ebola, measles is an airborne disease and is highly contagious. Simply being in the same room with someone who has measles can — and almost always does — cause an unvaccinated person to be infected. A highly effective vaccine nearly eradicated the disease, but it has recently made a comeback due to the surge in children who are not fully immunized, which leads me to the fifth threat:

5. Vaccine refusal: Texas allows parents to opt out of vaccines for their children based on personal beliefs. This means that your child could be in a school with unvaccinated children, who would present a significant risk of spreading diseases like measles, chicken pox, meningitis or some other vaccine-preventable disease if there were an outbreak. In 2011-12, nearly 30,000 children in Texas schools were unvaccinated, most of them for non-medical reasons likely due to fears about vaccine safety that have been thoroughly refuted by the medical community. But due to regulations about how data are collected and stored, Texas parents don’t have access to any information about the immunization rates in their children’s schools. The parents of a child with an immune-suppressing illness have rights, too. The virus of vaccine refusal is based on pseudoscience, but it’s spreading every day in Texas, and we’re poised for a preventable tragedy.

Having spent six years living and working in Sierra Leone in a rural missionary hospital and later as a relief worker during the civil war, I’ve been watching the spread of Ebola in my former home with a heavy heart and a deep understanding of the overwhelming challenges facing the country. Given Sierra Leone’s brutally hot climate and lack of resources and public health infrastructure, it’s no surprise that the epidemic has quickly escalated to a public health emergency and humanitarian crisis.

But we can and will avert widespread outbreak in the U.S. The real threat is complacency and a disregard for the scientific evidence of vaccine safety. Texas must increase funding to fight vaccine-preventable disease, reform our laws to prioritize public health and respond to constant threats that jeopardize the health of our community.

Is everyone skipping vaccines?

We're immunized! Are you? by Pixabay

We’re immunized! Are you? by Pixabay

This post originally appeared on the Disease Daily on Aug 25, 2014. It has been republished here with permission from the authors. 

By Jane Huston and Robyn Correll Carlyle

August is National Immunization Awareness Month. To celebrate, we are going to tackle a myth about vaccination every Monday throughout the month. View previous posts here, here, and here.

In our last myth-busting post of the month, we’re taking on the impression you might get from reading blogs or news online about vaccines: that droves of parents are deciding not to vaccinate their kids anymore. We know that with all the anti-vaccine chatter on social media or in the news, it often feels like everyone and their next-door neighbor is delaying, cherry-picking, or downright refusing vaccines.

But vaccination is very much still the social norm. In 2012, among US children ages 19-35 months, 92.8 percent were fully vaccinated against poliovirus. Ninety-four percent were vaccinated against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (three diseases prevented with the DTaP shot). Overall, 80 percent completed three important childhood series: DTaP, polio, and MMR.

If the majority of kids ARE getting vaccinated, why do we seem to only hear about those who aren’t? It’s a case of a silent majority versus a very vocal minority.

The fact is that nationally, vaccination coverage is relatively high — but not high enough. We need exceptionally high immunization coverage against exceptionally infectious diseases, like measles. And worst of all, national averages can hide some local variances that create dangerous powder kegs for infectious disease outbreaks.

For example, in California in the 2007-2008 school year, 92.1% of kindergarteners were fully immunized — not bad, right? Well, unfortunately it’s not that simple. Someplace like Glenn County reported 98.5% immunization rates — you go, Glenn Co! But… on the other hand, Nevada County reported that just 75.5% of its kindergarteners were fully immunized. That’s not high enough to ensure herd immunity against many diseases, like measles or whooping cough. One infectious traveler entering that under-protected community could be the spark to start an outbreak.

One potentially overlooked factor is why those kids are not fully immunized. And here the story gets a little more nuanced. There’s a big difference in being unvaccinated and undervaccinated. Unvaccinated children haven’t received a single vaccine; undervaccinated children have received one, some or even most of the vaccine schedule but are still missing some important shots. And it turns out these two groups are pretty different.

Researchers looked at a random sample of over 20,000 children, from 1995-2001 to learn a little more about those two groups of children. What they found was that only 0.3 percent were completely unvaccinated (here’s that vocal minority– these parents were more likely to report concerns around vaccine safety). It’s actually an incredibly small amount of people who are refusing all vaccines (good news!).

But… over 35 percent of children were undervaccinated to some degree. These children were statistically more likely to be racial or ethnic minorities, have a mother with low educational attainment, and live in poverty. These likely aren’t kids whose parents are refusing to let them get vaccinated, but they might be having trouble seeing a provider regularly or paying for vaccines. They’re falling through the cracks of the health system. This group is arguably the most important group for public health officials to focus on for outreach and more services.

Those who choose to delay or skip vaccines by choice — because of safety concerns or worries about the schedule — are still only a tiny portion of our population.

Almost everyone IS vaccinating. But to keep it that way, the silent majority needs to get louder about their support for vaccination.

Jane manages the Vaccine Finder project at Health Map, the host site of the Disease Daily. Robyn is a contributing writer for the Disease Daily and works as a project manager for a non-profit focused on vaccine education. Both are fully up-to-date on their immunizations.

Flu shots are for everyone – not just you.


by Daniel X. O’Neil

This article originally appeared on the Disease Daily on December 2, 2013. 

By Jane Huston and Robyn Correll Carlyle

Two out of five.

When public health officials make their rounds to encourage everyone six months of age and older to get the flu vaccine this year, two out of every five of you won’t.

Maybe you’re too busy. Maybe you don’t think it’s that important. Maybe you think that the flu vaccine would give you the flu (which it can’t).

“I’m young and healthy,” you might say. “I never get sick. And even if I do, it won’t be that big of a deal.”

But here’s the thing: It’s not just about you.

If you have influenza, you can pass the virus on to other people, sometimes without even realizing you’re sick. The communicable period (the time during which an infectious agent may be transferred from an infected person to a susceptible person) for influenza is between five and seven days, but can start one full day before you feel any symptoms. Some people infected with the virus never develop any symptoms, but are still contagious. That means you are able to infect others with influenza without feeling sick yourself. It seems incredibly unfair, but hey, all’s fair in love, war… and infectious disease.

It can be normal, everyday interactions that you wouldn’t think twice about. You touch doorknobs after discreetly wiping your nose. You squeeze onto mass transit and give out a little cough. You stand next to people in line at the grocery store and chat with them in close proximity. All of which are prime opportunities for influenza to jump from one person to another.

When you leave yourself open to the flu, you also leave yourself open to spread that flu to other people. And what might not be “that big of a deal” to you, can be a very big deal to someone you care about.

Every year between five and 20 percent of Americans will be affected by influenza, and at least 200,000 people are hospitalized annually because of it.

“Hang on now,” you might say. “Can’t we just vaccinate the people most likely to die or be hospitalized from the flu?”

Here’s the thing. Not everyone can be immunized against the flu. Babies under the age of 6 months and those who are seriously ill, for example, are not able to get the vaccine. And even older adults (the population most likely to die or be hospitalized due to flu) might not develop a strong enough immune response even after they’ve been vaccinated.

That’s where you come in. Something as simple as getting your flu vaccine helps to avert an average of 2 million cases of the flu and 18,000 flu-related hospitalizations every year. Because you can’t spread the flu if you never get infected.

But if we can’t appeal to your sense of civic duty, how about your pocketbook? Every year, the flu results in an estimated 31.4 million doctors visits and direct medical costs averaging $10.4 billion annually. Because people are too sick to go to work — or in some cases lose their life to the flu — we forfeit an average of $16.3 billion every year in projected lost earnings.

If you get infected with the flu and pass the virus onto another unsuspecting soul, that could mean days of lost pay — or longer if they have a family that becomes infected as well. After all, each infected person is likely to infect an average of 1.3 more people.

So for two out of five of you, this is our plea. Please don’t be that guy. Don’t be the one who could have received the flu vaccine but didn’t and now everyone in your office/kid’s school or daycare/grandmother’s assisted living facility has come down with it, too. You’re better than that. Besides, no one likes the sick guy.

Get your flu vaccine.

Jane manages the Vaccine Finder project at Health Map, the host site of the Disease Daily. Robyn is contributing writer for the Disease Daily and works as a health educator for a non-profit focused on vaccine education. Both are fully up-to-date on their immunizations.

The Summer My Dad Got Pneumonia

Angelina with her father, Larry

Angelina with her father, Larry

By Angelina Albert, MPH

In The Immunization Partnership office in Houston, there is a wall covered with large canvas print photographs. Each photo has a story connected to it of someone impacted by a vaccine-preventable disease. These stories remind us why we do what we do. I look at those photographs every day and reflect on what those families had gone through – what could have been prevented.

This past summer, our family experienced a vaccine-preventable disease story of our own.

It all started in July. Like many afternoons, I called my dad on my way home from work. He sounded weak and hoarse when he picked up the phone. I asked him how he was doing, and he told me how terrible he felt. He had woken up in the middle of the night gasping for air; he had never felt so bad. He wondered if he was possibly allergic to my mom’s recently adopted cat. I just assumed he had been working too hard and needed to rest. Even so, I was still very concerned. When I was young he had an emergency quadruple bypass.  Now – 22 years later – he is very healthy. He goes for long walks each morning and maintains a low-fat diet. But like any doting daughter, I still consistently worry about him.

I thought about him that evening and texted my mom to see how he was doing. She was coming to Houston that weekend and would bring the cat with her to see if his symptoms improved. We chatted about other things, and I assumed he would get better. She called me the next day from the emergency room. My dad couldn’t breathe.

When they took him into the ER, he was immediately diagnosed with pneumonia. They admitted him into the hospital, where he was put on oxygen and antibiotics and stayed for several days. His case was quite severe. The nurse asked him if he had received the pneumococcal vaccine, and he was pretty certain he hadn’t. Knowing where I worked, he called me to ask about it. After learning more about the vaccine from my colleagues, I told him that adults older than 65, especially those with chronic diseases (such as heart disease), should get the vaccine. He wasn’t even aware it existed, let alone that he needed it. He was annoyed that his doctor had not recommended it.

His hospital stay was extended when he developed an unusual swollen pain on his shoulder. My dad has his own business, and his anxiety level increased as he sat in the hospital room unable to work.  Now, months later, my dad is back at work, but still lacks energy.

Though my dad had made sure to receive the flu shot each fall, he had never received – or even been aware of – the pneumococcal vaccine for adults. He is older than 65, but is not frail or sickly, and to him developing pneumonia seemed to come out of nowhere. Seemingly healthy or not, it is strongly encouraged that adults his age (65+) receive the vaccine. I made him promise he would protect himself, and as soon as he was well enough, he went to the doctor to get the vaccine.

In 2010, 1.1 million people were admitted into the hospital for pneumonia in the United States, with a length of stay averaging 5.2 days. Among those with pneumonia in 2010, 49,597 people died from it.

My dad is one of the lucky ones; he pulled through. But my family will never forget that experience.

Angelina is a Development Specialist with The Immunization Partnership.

Six Signs the Article You’re Reading is Bad Science

by Vmenkov

by Vmenkov

This article originally appeared on the Disease Daily on Jul 16, 2014. It has been reposted with permission from the authors.

By Jane Huston and Robyn Correll Carlyle

One reason we feel so strongly about the role of vaccines in public health is because of the massive amount of good data and quality studies that support them. And that’s why it’s frustrating when media, the Twittersphere, or the internet in general circulate rumors and poorly designed studies attacking vaccines.

The thing is– science is hard. Like, really hard. People study for up to 10 years to be a qualified researcher. And reading scientific literature can be a bit tricky. We can’t catch you up to the guy or gal who’s devoted an entire career to vaccinology or epidemiology, but here’s a handy cheat sheet to help you spot the “junk science” when it comes across your news feed:

1. It confuses correlation and causation.

This is a big one, and possibly a mantra you’ve heard before: correlation does not equal causation. Correlation is a statistical term that simply means the way two variables fluctuate appear to be related in some fashion. Any fashion. Maybe variable A going up happens at approximately the same rate as variable B going down. Maybe they increase together. Maybe it’s not a linear relationship (but that’s a bit more complicated). What’s most important to remember here is we absolutely cannot assume that one is causing the other. We simply don’t have enough information since all we know is how the variables are changing.

Take this example of Nicolas Cage films and drowning deaths. That plot looks pretty good right? And the correlation coefficient is a fairly solid 0.66. Could it be that Cage’s action-packed thrillers are inexplicably driving people towards backyard swimming pools? Anything’s possible. But the two almost certainly have nothing to do with each other and are, instead, a total coincidence. Often when two variables are correlated, there is actually an unknown third (and potentially fourth and fifth) variable that is affecting both of the events you’re examining.

2. Its sample size is small.

People suffer from a wide range of medical issues every day — sometimes they are caused by what you’re studying, but sometimes it’s just by chance that the participants being studied develop an issue. Out of a study sample of three, having one guy get hit by a bus would look like a significant trend. The larger the sample size, the less impact those random occurrences will have on your data.

3. The study is uncontrolled.

Not uncontrollable like your two-year-old nephew on a sugar-high, but uncontrolled as in lacking a control group. A control group provides a researcher something to which to compare results; it’s the closest way to estimate the counterfactual. Did the subjects get better over the course of the experiment because of a drug being tested, or would they have improved anyway? A control group that is similar to the experimental group in every way EXCEPT for the intervention can help you answer that question.

4. The results are not replicable.

One study alone (even a well designed, large-scale one) can’t prove anything. All it can do is contribute to the body of work already done by the scientific community. It takes several studies coming to the same conclusion to say anything with confidence — and even then we can’t be 100% certain. Science is purposefully self-correcting. Researchers rely on each other to validate their results. If no other researchers have been able to replicate a study’s findings, that’s a red flag.

On a related note, beware of those researchers who are only citing themselves. If an author says that there is “substantial evidence to support” a given link or a particular cause, check out the citations. Have several different research groups provided evidence to support the link? Or is it just one name (the author’s) that keeps popping up? If that author is the only one who seems to be providing that “substantial evidence,” it’s worth taking with a fistful of salt.

5. There’s a conflict of interest.

This is a sensitive but important point. When publishing a paper, authors must disclose the source of funding for their work as well as any other relevant conflicts of interest, such as ownership of a related private company. This does not necessarily invalidate the results of the experiment, but you should definitely be aware of any potential bias when reading results. If the author has a lot to gain from the study and the results seem glowing with no down-sides or limitations, be suspicious.

6. It’s published in a journal that’s not peer-reviewed.

Whenever possible, try to read the original journal article instead of relying on the popular press. Articles in general news media can be a great source to find out about new and interesting research, but remember they are necessarily interpreted by a reporter (in best cases by a science writer with a background in science; in the worst cases it’s a press release). While you’re reading the original article, make a note of the journal it appears in. Is it a reputable publication, like Nature, Journal of American Medical Association or the New England Journal of Medicine? Did articles have to pass a peer-review process, meaning that other experts read the manuscript, asked probing questions, pointed out any errors, and addressed limitations? This process is by no means perfect; mistakes can certainly still get through peer review and show up in reputable sources. But on the whole, a study appearing in a respected, peer-reviewed academic journal carries more weight than one published on a personal blog.

There’s another deadly threat — single-issue shill “journals” published entirely to push an agenda. This is the worst possible abuse of the scientific process. Some people, after being spurned by reputable journals, will go so far as to create their own journals to fabricate a veneer of legitimacy for their flawed ideas. These biased publications are a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Avoid them at all cost.

In the age of the internet, it’s getting harder to tell good science from bad. But if you follow this guide, and approach scientific articles with a healthy dose of skepticism, you’ll do fine.

Jane manages the Vaccine Finder project at Health Map, the host site of the Disease Daily. Robyn is a contributing writer for the Disease Daily and works as a project manager for The Immunization Partnership. Both are fully up-to-date on their immunizations.

Adults Vaccinations – Protecting Yourself Later in Life

imageA few months ago, as I was chatting with my mom, she casually mentioned that a family member had come down with shingles. I was concerned about him, but went about my day. All of a sudden (hours later), my concern turned to distress – this family member had held my daughter for about 30 minutes the previous weekend. Did this expose my daughter to shingles? And what were the risks? I knew very little about shingles at the time – only that it develops from the chickenpox virus – a virus that my daughter had not yet been vaccinated against.

Although she wasn’t a newborn anymore, my daughter’s little system still seemed so fragile and vulnerable to me. I thought back to our months in the hospital and got a pit in my stomach. I hated to be an alarmist, but I was worried. I immediately went to Google and researched whether or not shingles could spread from an adult to a child. (Sidenote: terrible idea. A lot of non-science-based sites pop up on Google’s search results list.) My next move was to put down the laptop and pick up the phone. I calmly called our pediatrician who reassured me everything was probably fine.

After getting some answers, I figured other parents might be interested in the information I found. So here it is:

How does a person develop shingles, and is it contagious?

Shingles is caused by the varicella zoster virus (VZV), the same virus that causes chickenpox. After a person recovers from chickenpox, the virus stays dormant (or inactive) in the body. For unknown reasons, the virus can reactivate years later, causing shingles. Because the varicella zoster virus is already inside a person’s body, the infected individual cannot pass shingles along to someone else.

What if my child was exposed to someone with shingles?

Although shingles itself is not contagious, a person with shingles can expose others to the chickenpox virus from their rash, so those who have not had chickenpox before (or the vaccine that provides protective immunity) are at risk of developing it. My daughter was not old enough for the vaccine (she had yet to turn 12 months old), so our pediatrician told us to keep an eye on our daughter, as she was at risk. Thankfully, she did not contract the virus.

Who should get the Varicella (chickenpox) vaccine?

The CDC recommends two doses of chickenpox vaccine for children, adolescents, and adults who have not had the chickenpox. Children should receive two doses of the vaccine — the first dose at 12 through 15 months old and a second dose at 4 through 6 years old. Adolescents aged 13 years or older (who have never had chickenpox and who have not received the chickenpox vaccine) should get two doses at least 28 days apart. Anyone else who is not fully vaccinated, and never had chickenpox, should receive one or two doses of the chickenpox vaccine. The timing of those doses will depend on the individual’s age, and a doctor should be consulted.

How can adults prevent getting shingles?

They can get vaccinated! For adults, the shingles (herpes zoster) vaccination reduces the risk of developing shingles and the long-term pain from post-herpetic neuralgia – an extremely painful complication caused by shingles. The CDC recommends the shingles vaccine for people aged 60 years and older. Even those who have had shingles in the past can receive the vaccine to help prevent future occurrences of the disease. Ask your healthcare provider about getting vaccinated today.

Both the shingles and chickenpox viruses can be very painful and dangerous, so parents – ensure your child gets the chickenpox vaccine when they are old enough, and adults – protect yourself from a bad case of shingles and get vaccinated. Again, the idea is to prevent what is preventable. In this case, the whole family can get on board for the greatest protection possible.