An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Sometimes, old-style wisdom has a way of grounding our contemporary logic. This aphorism is no less true for matters of health than for any other thing, and there is no more important preventive health issue than immunizations.
In this column, I’ve previously reflected on the decline in infant and child mortality in the last century. A walk through any pre-20th century cemetery reveals this stark truth. The fact that child death has become so uncommon in the modern age is a testament to the twin breakthroughs of antibiotics and immunizations.
As a case study, consider the role of the viral illness smallpox in shaping human history. According to most accounts, by the late 18th century in Europe alone, more than 400,000 annual deaths occurred because of smallpox and one-third of survivors were blinded. It is estimated that the combined mortality from this disease over time was 300 million to 500 million people. Yet, smallpox is no more. After the development of an effective vaccine and public health efforts to ensure immunization, smallpox was eradicated in 1977.
That was just the beginning. The progress of medical science led to the development of safe and effective vaccines against many of the infectious disease scourges of our species – rabies, typhoid, cholera, plague, diphtheria, polio and measles. Today, the list has expanded to include many more vaccine-preventable diseases.
Yet, the gains in public health achieved by these important advances are under threat by conspiracy theories that call into question the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. They are also threatened by political and social turmoil in developing nations that complicate efforts to spread vaccinations to the most marginalized members of the global human community.
The eradication of smallpox proves that coordinated vaccination efforts can be effective. Next on the list is polio, which survives only in a few chaotic parts of the world.
Yet, even in the developed world, we cannot become complacent. High rates of vaccination protect not only immunized individuals but also communities as a result of so-called herd immunity. This means that diseases have trouble maintaining a foothold when susceptible individuals are few in number. The success of vaccination efforts relies on the choices that we all make.
There are few other instances where individual choice affects the health of all members of the community. Consider that infants are naturally susceptible to myriad infectious diseases before completing a serious of vaccinations. Their well-being in this regard relies on the choices made by members of their community whether to be vaccinated.
As to the conspiracy theories about vaccine safety, logic dictates that decisions should be made based on hard evidence rather than subjective opinion. Considerable resources have been expended to objectively evaluate purported links between vaccines and conditions such as autism. The scientific evidence is clear that there is no link.
For those wishing to convince themselves, I invite you to review the evidence yourself, including a summary of vaccine safety studies at http://bit.ly/1RqyxTF.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Ute Health Center in Towaoc.