Heart disease, cancer, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, and diabetes were among the leading causes of death in 2010 in the U.S. Combined, these illnesses accounted for 1,454,473 that year alone. Odds are you know someone who has either been affected by or died from one of these illnesses. I am one of those people. A little over a year ago I came close to losing my 31 year-old husband to a massive heart attack caused by a hereditary form of high cholesterol. Unlike vaccine-preventable diseases, these conditions do not spread via infection but rather are linked to genetics and/or lifestyle behaviors such as smoking, poor diet, lack of exercise or any combination of these factors. Often little can be done in terms of prevention. So here’s the question: if a clinically proven safe and effective vaccine was developed that would virtually eliminate, or at the very least drastically reduce the risk of developing any of these devastating diseases would you vaccinate yourself and your children? My guess is most Americans would say yes in a heartbeat.
Why is that? Why is there such hesitancy and opposition towards vaccines that have all but eliminated diseases that once claimed innocent lives? I believe there are two explanations. First, everyone knows someone or knows of someone whose life has been affected by the diseases I mentioned before. We have all seen or heard about the horrible side effects of chemotherapy and the devastation a family experiences when a loved one unexpectedly dies from a heart attack or stroke. We know these stories and can imagine ourselves experiencing the same tragedy. On the flip side, images of polio and iron lungs, smallpox, and even mumps seem more like gruesome tales of ancient times. I cannot begin to wrap my mind around the thought of pools being closed in the summers for fear that my child would contract polio. It seems more like a horror story than real life for many of us with young children, but this was very real for the grandparents of today’s young children. It is pretty amazing that vaccines for such terrible diseases were developed just 2 generations ago.
The second reason? Far too many people do not understand the possible consequences of some seemingly mild vaccine-preventable diseases. Chickenpox (varicella) for example is commonly thought to be nothing more than a mild illness associated with a rash and itchy skin. Nothing a nice oatmeal bath and some Calamine lotion can’t fix, right? The truth is the disease can be quite severe resulting in very serious complications such as pneumonia, infection or inflammation of the brain, toxic shock syndrome, or even death. Prior to the availability of the vaccine, varicella resulted in approximately 10,600 hospitalizations each year and lead to 100’s of deaths annually.
I hope we can continue to develop vaccines that will help eradicate many of the diseases that currently plague our nation. Maybe one day we will even have to remind people of the devestating consequences that heart disease and diabetes once caused. In the meantime, it is important to remember that we do have the power to prevent so many illnesses that once claimed countless innocent lives each year. Take advantage of the protection that vaccines offer. The power of prevention is in your hands.