JOPLIN, Mo. - Immunizations are among the most effective medical interventions of all time. Short of basic sanitation and nutrition, no health intervention has done more to save lives and prevent disease than immunizations.
Before the advent of vaccines, diphtheria claimed more than 10,000 children’s lives annually in the 1920s in the United States, polio paralyzed and killed thousands of children in the 1940s and the 1950s, and the measles affected nearly a half-million U.S. children every year at one point.
Fast forward to today. Smallpox was eradicated from the world in 1977. In 1991, polio was eliminated from the Western Hemisphere. The list of serious diseases eradicated or whose numbers have been reduced dramatically by immunizations includes mumps, measles, rubella and tetanus.
Despite the absence of diseases like polio, diphtheria and tetanus, some parents remain unconvinced about the importance of immunizations. As a result, some children still are not properly immunized.
Yes, it’s true that a few children do not respond to one vaccine or another as no vaccine has a record of 100 percent effectiveness for everyone. Multiple studies, however, prove the effectiveness of vaccines.
Depending on the study cited, childhood vaccines are 85 percent to 98 percent effective, which is remarkable when taking into account the serious nature of many of these infections. When we have an opportunity to give our children up to a 98 percent chance of avoiding a disease like chickenpox, which can lead to dehydration and pneumonia, or a serious illness like whooping cough, which can cause seizures, brain disease and death, that’s a convincing reason to vaccinate.
Most of the vaccines our children receive are given by shots, with some given orally. That brings us to the question: How do vaccines work?
The human body relies on its immune system to fight an invading organism. White blood cells activate and begin making proteins called antibodies that attack the infectious agent and create a counter offensive.
Even after they’ve done their work, these antibodies don’t disappear and remain in the blood stream, always on the lookout for the return of the same invaders. The reason they are the same invaders is because these antibodies are pretty specific. That means if they have been created in response to the measles virus, for example, they are not going to work against chickenpox.
Immunizations work in a similar manner. They rely on antibodies to fight off infection. Live vaccines are made up of a weakened version of bacteria or the virus responsible for the disease.
In some, vaccines are made from dead forms of the organism. When the vaccine is given, the body’s immune system detects this weakened or dead germ or germ part and reacts just as it would when a new, full-blown infection occurs. It begins making antibodies against the vaccine material. These antibodies remain in the body and are ready to react if an infectious organism attacks.
In a sense, the vaccine tricks the body into thinking it is under assault. As a result, the immune system makes weapons that will provide defense when a real infection becomes a threat.
Some parents have a misconception that vaccines are not safe, which is false. Before a vaccine is approved and licensed, it goes through years of testing for safety and effectiveness. Neither the American Academy of Pediatrics, nor government agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would recommend a vaccine that has not passed tests for safety and effectiveness.
Of course, no vaccine or medicine is perfect. Some children who are immunized will experience reactions. Fortunately, most of these reactions are mild and short lived.
The child may experience redness, pain or swelling at the site of the injection, while some may develop slight fever. After a few days, these symptoms will disappear, with no lasting effects.
Through it all, keep reminding yourself that guarding your child against serious health risks is worth the short-term discomfort and tears that may be part of getting immunized.
For more information, call Mercy Clinic Pediatrics at 417-556-3416.