I used to try to avoid vaccine arguments. It’s the single most passionately-defended topic in pediatrics; that’s one thing we can all agree on, whether you’re anti-vax or anti-anti-vax. And it should be contentious. If kids are dying and you have a way to prevent it, you should be standing on the street corner preaching your heart out. And if you truly believe that vaccines are doing irreparable harm to the next generation, you’d be wrong not to protest.
You’ve heard all the arguments before—all the reasons why vaccines are bad: they cause autism; they contain thimerosal/aluminum/mercury/formaldehyde/squalene/Brussels sprouts (I made that one up); they come from aborted babies; vaccine companies are evil; we are giving “too many, too soon;” the list goes on.
Some of these arguments are misinformed; others are just wrong. But the REAL problem with vaccines—is that they’re too good. Because the incidence of vaccine-preventable illnesses has been so dramatically reduced (which is the goal), there are very few people that understand exactly what it is that they prevent. I’m not just talking about parents; most pediatricians currently in training or that have recently completed training have not seen many of these illnesses.
- I have never seen meningococcal meningitis.
- I have seen neither measles, mumps, nor rubella.
- I have never seen diphtheria or tetanus.
- If I had seen a case of polio, you would have heard about it.
- I have seen invasive Haemophilus influenza disease
oncetwice (in unvaccinated children).
- I have seen three cases of chickenpox, one of which was in an adult with HIV.
- I have seen a handful of cases of pertussis, all in unvaccinated children.
If these diseases were in the news, and if parents were as scared of them as they are of Ebola, there would be no arguments. But until recently, they haven’t been in the news, because the vaccines have done such a good job of preventing them. However, with the increased number of parents who are electing not to immunize their children, the news coverage is picking up. In fact, I saw a story today about an infant who died from whooping cough not because he wasn’t vaccinated, but because his mother chose not to be. When I read stories like that, I wonder how many more similar stories it will take.
If something doesn’t change, I may see those other diseases after all.
[Post-publication note: This article was originally published in October 2014, prior to the Disneyland measles outbreak. It may seem strange to those of you reading this no that I “neglected” to mention that, but if anything, I think the increased circulation of another vaccine-preventable illness strengthens the arguments I made here. You can read my thoughts about the measles outbreak here. Obviously, I no longer try to avoid vaccine arguments.]