By Hansa Bhargava, MD
The other day I saw a 9-month-old baby in my clinic who came in with a high fever. The parents told me he had never received any vaccinations because they were concerned that his immune system could get ‘overloaded.’ The child was unprotected against some of the most deadly organisms, including those that cause pneumonia, meningitis, and measles. These diseases can lead to hospitalizations and even death.
Being a mother of two 7-year-olds, as well as a pediatrician, I understand the wish to protect our children. Many of my own friends and family members have worried about ‘overloading’ the immune system or whether vaccines cause autism. But what is the truth? In fact, there is no medical evidence to date that the immune system can be ‘overwhelmed’. And the notion that the MMR vaccine causes autism has been proven untrue, in study after study.
Some parents say that because everyone else is vaccinated, their child is protected even without vaccines. But imagine the danger if every parent felt this way. This is already happening in some areas of the United States. In some private schools in California, less than 20% of the kids have been vaccinated. The children at these schools are at huge risk of getting sick if an epidemic occurs. It is frightening to think about what would happen if one student got measles or another severe childhood illness.
And here’s a concerning trend: Recently, there have been more, and worse, outbreaks of childhood illnesses. In 2011 there were 220 cases of measles reported- a big jump from an average of 60 cases per year, previously. This year, 159 people have already been diagnosed. Most of these people got sick because they were unvaccinated and came into contact with someone who had traveled internationally. Don’t forget, we live in a small world. With the extent of airline travel, can you guarantee that when your child grows up, he will never go outside this country? Or meet someone who has traveled here from another country?
And then there is the recent outbreak of whooping cough, which killed several infants. In 2010, there were 9,210 youngsters infected with whooping cough in California. A study confirmed that the large numbers of unvaccinated children helped spread the infection. In my office that day, the 9-month-old had to undergo a lot of tests because he was not protected. This included a lumbar puncture, to make sure he was not infected with a bacteria that could cause meningitis. The baby was also admitted to the hospital. Luckily, he was released a few days later. The child was given vaccinations not long after that.
Vaccinations are key protectors of our children’s health. We have the luxury of living in a developed nation where we’ve been able to get rid of most of these illnesses through immunization efforts. But most of them are still lurking in the background. Do you want those illnesses to come back? And possibly affect your children and communities?