Fifteen Minutes

They say we all get our fifteen minutes of fame and in a few short hours my family, specifically my daughter, will get hers.  I’m hoping this is just an introduction to her time in the spotlight because her fame is not based on any great accomplishment or good deed, but rather on lack of protection from and eventual diagnosis of rotavirus a few months ago.  I still remember holding her in the hospital and looking into those sunken little eyes, a result of days of severe vomiting and diarrhea, and wishing I could make it all go away.  Thinking if only there was something I could have done to have prevented this from happening to my baby girl.  Little did we know, our four day hospital stay could have been avoided if she had received the recommended vaccinations.  We were shocked a few weeks later when we were told that our child, who we thought was up-to-date on all her vaccinations, was now a statistic; a child who had suffered because of a vaccine-preventable disease.   We are fortunate and thankful for the wonderful doctors and nurses who looked after our sweet girl during her hospitalization, but it was a trip we should have never had to make in the first place.

So why is her diagnosis garnering attention?  We have been asked to be a part of Texas Children’s Hospital’s “Vaccine-Preventable Disease: The Forgotten Story,” a book that puts a face on the real life consequences of not vaccinating.  As I am sure most of the families in this book would agree, it is not a book you want to be in, but we are honored to share our story in the hope that it will encourage others to immunize their children and themselves.  We are fortunate.  Many families featured in this book share an all too tragic loss of a son, a daughter, a brother, or a sister.  If sharing our experiences and the knowledge we have learned from it opens someone’s eyes to the importance of vaccinating, mission accomplished.

Stay tuned and next week I’ll tell you all about it!

One Day, Three Teens, Eight Vaccines and Cherry Red Stilettos

As a special treat for our followers, our very own Anna C. Dragsbaek, President/CEO of the Immunization Partnership, has written a very clever and entertaining post detailing her recent experience immunizing three boys as well as her self-professed love for a pair of cherry red stilettos!  Having worked in a rural hospital as a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone, West Africa, Anna is all to familiar with the critical role that vaccines play in the health of a community.  Her dedication and commitment to ensure that all communities are protected from vaccine-preventable diseases is a driving force behind rising immunization rates in the state of Texas.  And with that, please help me welcome Anna to  MOMmunizations!


Community Immunity is a numbers game so I wanted to share a few numbers with you today: 1, 3, 8, and 86.  In one day, I immunized three teenage boys with eight vaccines for $86.   Let’s dissect these numbers a little more.

This year I am hosting a foreign exchange student from Brazil.  He arrived in the USA with just about everything he needed, except for five vaccines:  Meningitis, Polio, Hepatitis A, Varicella and TDaP.  Since he does not have insurance for vaccines, I took him to a public health clinic so that he could get immunized under the ‘Vaccines for Children’ program that offers free or low-cost vaccines to individuals 18 years of age or younger, who lack health insurance.   The total cost for all 5 vaccines: a mere $14.   Next up were my two sons.   My oldest son will be spending the next year in China as an exchange student.  I wanted to make sure that he would be protected against influenza and Typhoid before leaving.   And last but not least, I made sure to get my youngest son immunized against influenza as well.    My two sons went to their primary care provider for their immunizations.  The cost for the flu shots:  $0.   The cost of the typhoid vaccine:  $72.   And thanks to healthcare reform, we didn’t even have a co-pay.   My total cost for eight vaccines that will prevent 9 diseases in three teenage boys who are near and dear to my heart:  $86.  That’s it.  Just $86. And $72 of that was for a travel vaccine that is only recommended for people who are going to be in countries where typhoid is a risk, so if my son weren’t going abroad my total cost would have been $14.   Heck, even a pair of cherry red stilettos couldn’t make me feel like I had spent my money on a better purpose.

I have to confess that, even though I am in the business of immunizations, I was astounded that the cost for all those life-saving vaccines was so minimal.   Granted, my family is blessed to have access to private health insurance and my exchange student has landed in a family that knows how to access community resources for him.  Still, I had to pause and give thanks for many things:  the researchers who developed the vaccines, the distribution mechanisms that get the vaccines to the doctors, the availability of low-cost vaccines for all children regardless of their ability to pay, the school nurses who are at the front lines of keeping our children up-to-date with their immunizations, the nurses who administer the vaccines, the systems that track and monitor vaccine coverage rates, the legislators who fearlessly protect laws that ensure Texas can maintain high immunization rates, and the tireless work of our public health servants who fight the uphill battle of keeping our community safe from vaccine-preventable diseases.

So why is there still such resistance to immunizing?  Well, if you have been following the news, this blog and many others, you already know the answer.   Many people are fearful of vaccines because of rampant misinformation and fraudulent research.   Since my job is to promote and advocate for immunizing, it will not surprise you that I never questioned the need for vaccines, especially since I saw firsthand the effects of a world without vaccines when I worked as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Sierra Leone, West Africa.    The terrors of vaccine-preventable diseases were a fact of life, with mothers regularly burying their babies due to tetanus, hib meningitis, or pneumococcal.   If you want to know if vaccines are important, ask those moms.   They would walk 10+ miles with a baby strapped to their back and a toddler on their hip, then stand in line for hours under a brutally hot sun just to protect their children from deadly diseases.  For them, vaccines are worth it, and they should be for us too.   Let’s not let complacency and reliance on junk science interfere with doing all we can to protect our families.

Like I said at the beginning of the blog, community immunity is a numbers game–the choices that we all make about immunizations directly impact our friends, family and neighbors.  The more people there are that decline vaccines, the higher the risk for all of us that there will be outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases.  So, let’s all do our part and protect ourselves in order to protect each other.   And if your friends or family are hesitant about vaccines, don’t hesitate to voice your support for them and speak out against misinformation.  They will listen to you–sometimes more than their own doctor.

As I ended my day, I felt good about doing all I could to protect the boys I love.  I know that I made a big difference in their lives by making sure that vaccine-preventable diseases will never get in the way of their success or achievements.    All three of my boys have a bright future, and I want to do all I can to keep it that way.   We can’t mitigate all the risks that our children face, but preventing many deadly diseases is easy, and by the way, cheap!    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off in search of a pair of cherry red stilettos…

Imagine the Unimaginable

I love the summer, but August in Houston is a phenomenon in and of itself.  It seems that every year our city hits a new record high temperature and without our neighborhood pool I’m not sure my kids and I would participate in any outdoor activities in the final month of summer.   Life without that cool water to splash around in is almost unimaginable, but just one generation ago it was a reality.  In the 1950’s community pools and parks were closed, parents ordered their children not to drink from public water fountains, and schools even cancelled graduations in an attempt to stop the spread of polio; a disease that affected over 33,000 people in 1950 alone.  Thankfully, the introduction of Salk’s inactivated poliovirus vaccine (IPV), developed by Jonas Salk, in 1955 rapidly decreased this number to under 2,500 cases in 1957 and by 1965 only 61 cases of polio were reported in the United States, helping to end an era of fear.

Polio, a vaccine-preventable disease most often spread through person-to-person contact, used to be very common in the U.S. and caused severe illness in thousands of people each year.  While most people infected with this preventable disease have no symptoms, for the less than 1% who develop paralysis, it may result in permanent disability and even death.  While our generation has little fear, or even knowledge of the life altering consequences of this disease, it is still a real threat.  According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), as of early 2012, the world is still not on track to eradicate this disabling and deadly disease.   While the incidence of polio has seen a drop of more than 99% since 1998, 111 cases have been reported this year in four countries, three of those still considered to be endemic to the disease.  According to CDC Director Thomas R. Frieden, MD, MPH, it is imperative that we make a final push toward eradication of polio a top priority, explaining that “without eradication, a resurgence of polio could paralyze more than 200,000 children worldwide each year within a decade.”

It’s safe to say that most of us have never seen a case of polio in our lifetime; something we should all be thankful for.   However, the protection that the polio vaccine has provided us for over half a century gives many a false sense of security and the dangerous impression that the disease is no longer a threat, which is simply untrue.  Receiving the recommended childhood vaccinations as well as those recommended for unvaccinated adults is the only way to truly protect yourself and others from this disease so many of us cannot even imagine.  Let’s all do our part to make sure that polio is part of the past, not the future.

Words of Wisdom

There are few words of wisdom more powerful or heartfelt than those of a parent who has experienced tragedy through the injury or loss of a child.  As parents we all want our children to be happy and healthy and when tragedy strikes, words cannot express the heartbreak that ensues.  Earlier this week Patsy Schanbaum and Greg Williams, parents of Jamie Schanbaum and Nicolis Williams, shared the painful lesson they each learned when their children were diagnosed with bacterial meningitis.

Patsy and Greg explain that they did all they could to prepare their children to be successful and thrive in their studies, but one important piece of the puzzle was forgotten; vaccination against meningitis—a disease most common among college students.  Jamie endured the amputation of half of both legs and fingers on both hands while Nicolis’ life ended tragically just days after he was admitted to the hospital for this aggressive vaccine-preventable disease.   In 2011, the Texas Legislature enacted legislation creating a new requirement that all entering college students be vaccinated against the disease that caused so much pain and suffering for these, and other families.  This new law, named in honor of Nicolis’ life and to recognize Jamie’s physical suffering will save the lives of countless Texas college students.

While drawing attention to the real life consequences of meningitis, another key aspect of this article was intended to draw attention to the fact that the Texas Department of State Health Services recently removed the meningitis vaccine from the list of shots provided to low-income college students.  This cut in funding further complicates the ability of thousands of students who are already in financial need to receive the vaccine and will force them to obtain it at a potentially higher cost.  Knowing all too well the importance of protection from this disease, both Patsy and Greg are asking that the Texas Legislature maintain their focus in order to protect our college students and restore funding for low-income students, and also calling for our colleges and universities to have the “public and private support they need to efficiently and cheaply immunize their students.”

As parents all over the nation are tearfully packing boxes and preparing words of wisdom filled with years of important life lessons, we should all be thankful that The Jamie Schanbaum and Nicolis Williams Act is firmly set in place to give the parents of college students one less worry.   Listen to the words of these parents who have suffered at the hands of this preventable disease so that we may “do everything in our power to ensure that other Texas families have the positive college experiences their children so richly deserve.”

Honey or Vinegar?

The saying “you’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar” came to mind while reading comments on a recent blog post about vaccines.  The subject of vaccines has become a very sensitive topic as immunizations have been falsely linked to autism and described as nothing more than “toxic cocktails” that endanger the well-being of our children.  These not so glowing portrayals of the medications proven to save lives all over the world have incited passionate outcries from both pro and anti-vaccine advocates alike.   Unfortunately that very passion is all too often expressed through anger filled words and judgmental observations.  After leaving supportive comments on a fellow pro-vaccine advocates’ blog this past weekend, I was hit with some extremely harsh comments.  I will admit, as a person who stands behind and openly supports vaccinations for people of all ages, it was difficult not to snap back with a few negative comments of my own, but after taking a moment I realized that hateful words would accomplish nothing.  My response was backed by scientific evidence that spoke for itself.  Harsh words and negativity will never draw anyone to see your side.   In fact it will do just the opposite.

So what are a few effective methods when talking to someone who is vaccine hesitant or anti-vaccine?  In my opinion and through my experiences, listen.   Listen to the fears, the concerns, the accusations and the statistics that are thrown your way.  By acknowledging that you have heard the other person’s side you may just get the same in return.  Just as important, make sure to cite credible and reliable sources such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and the Immunization Action Coalition (IAC) when discussing the safety and efficacy of vaccines.  Another effective option that has proven to help me convey my message is to make it personal.  Explain why it is important that you and your family are up-to-date on vaccinations and why choosing whether or not to vaccinate affects more than just your immediate family.  Having a child who was hospitalized as a direct result of being unprotected from a vaccine-preventable disease, I am able to share my experience and show that these diseases still exist and are a real threat to the unimmunized.  And finally, be respectful.  Vaccines play such an important role in our lives and it’s sometimes difficult to convey that message to someone who bases their stance on discredited studies and conspiracy theories, but don’t let your emotions get the best of you.  You will make more of an impact if you rely on the science that speaks for itself.

Always remember that there are two sides to every argument.  In this case one is supported by scientific evidence and factual information and one is not.  As vaccine advocates, all we can do is present the facts that prove the life-saving power of immunizations.  At the end of the day, we may have to agree to disagree, but it can always be done in a respectful and adult-like manner.  So before you speak, make sure you are using honey, not vinegar.