It’s hard to believe that just a few decades ago diseases like measles, whooping cough, polio, diphtheria, chicken pox, and even small pox were a scourge in America. Thousands of people, mostly children, died from them each year.
If they didn’t kill their victims, some, like polio, could render them crippled for the rest of their lives. Fighting these viral diseases and developing vaccines to stop them was one of the greatest medical achievements of the past century. But how quickly we forget.
Because a small but not inconsiderable number of individuals aren’t getting the vaccinations they need, these diseases may come back to haunt us. This year, measles, which seemed on the verge of eradication in the United States, has made a resurgence. The number of cases has exceeded 1,000, and the rate hasn’t slowed.
Hot spots for the disease are in California, Oregon and Maryland. Virginia has joined the list, but so far has only a handful of cases. The Centers for Disease Control, along with state and local health authorities, are trying hard to increase the number of vaccinated people.
But that illustrates the problem. There are people, primarily children, who aren’t getting the vaccinations they need – at least not in sufficient numbers. There are a lot of reasons for this, and few can be considered valid.
Some people have become complacent. They believe these diseases are things of the past. The thing is, they aren’t. They are still a real threat. That’s why every county and city in our area requires that children be vaccinated before they start school. With the exception of a religious exemption -- and New York just revoked its religious exemption -- it’s not negotiable. Required vaccines include those for diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis B and chicken pox. Those were all once common and potentially deadly diseases. Now, they aren’t -- thanks to vaccinations.
Other reasons for not vaccinating children are more conscious. But none is credible. A few parents actively refuse to vaccinate their children -- either buying into junk science, such as the notion that certain vaccines cause autism, or believing that because it’s a government initiative, they want nothing to do with it.
Sadly, there is a small but stubborn anti-vaccine movement in the United States, one even partly embraced by Marianne Williamson, one of the Democratic candidates for president, and it does a terrible disservice to all of us.
One more reason is that a lot of young parents don’t have insurance or don’t have the money for regular medical services. That’s distressing, but young parents should know that every public health office in Virginia, in every county, will provide vaccinations free of charge. It’s as simple as that. The word needs to get out.
Now, just an aside, what exactly do vaccines do? Well, I am no doctor, but the principle is pretty straightforward. A vaccine exposes us to a far weaker, often dead, version of the virus, which then prompts our body’s immune system to develop the necessary resistance. The success rate is incredible, but it’s never 100% effective. A few who take the vaccines don’t develop the immunity. But by vaccinating at least 95% of the population, those who don’t develop the immunity are protected as well.
Many of these diseases have been around for thousands of years. There is evidence that small pox began in Neolithic era when humans first started forming villages and towns. The origins of other viral diseases are difficult to trace – mostly because medicine just didn’t know how to identify them.
It’s almost a given that no wants us to return to the era when children died of whooping cough or succumbed to diphtheria. Or when whole communities, as recently as the 1950s, closed their theaters, their playgrounds, their pools and even their schools because they feared an outbreak of the highly contagious polio virus.
That’s how insidious these viral diseases can be, but medical science and governments have taken them on and pushed them into the shadows. The challenge is to keep up the pressure, not only to keep them out of our daily lives, but to remove them from the scene entirely. It can be done.
David Kerr, a former member of the Stafford School Board, is an instructor in political science at VCU. He can be reached at email@example.com.