I was recently chatting with an older colleague about how I have had the benefit to work at a time and place where certain vaccine preventable illnesses are not commonplace.
I’m a mid-career physician, but this reflects a change within my own lifetime. During training, I saw the devastating effects from infections, including such conditions as bacterial meningitis, sepsis and severe pneumonia among young children. I also witnessed sometimes-severe consequences from common infections, such as influenza and chicken pox.
Yet some of the most anxiety-provoking infections treated by physicians, especially pediatricians, even a generation ago have become very uncommon – perhaps until recently.
Indeed there is a concerning resurgence of vaccine-preventable illnesses in recent years worldwide. For instance, polio – a once-common viral illness associated with paralysis – has been slated for global eradication since the start of a World Health Organization campaign in 1988. But civil unrest and opposition to vaccination have led to outbreaks in Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan.
But the problem of resurgence in certain vaccine-preventable illnesses is not limited to the developing world. It has become unfortunately common in the United States.
Measles is a disease characterized by high fever, cough, runny nose, red/watery eyes and a widespread rash. Complications, especially among infants and young children, can include ear infections, pneumonia and encephalitis.
Measles was declared eliminated in the United States in January 2000. But since that time, there have been several high profile outbreaks, often originating with international travelers and then spreading among unvaccinated people. More cases of measles (more than 1,200) have been reported in the U.S. in 2019 than any year since 1992. Outbreaks have been confirmed in 31 states, including three cases recently reported in Colorado.
Another vaccine-preventable illness making the news lately is hepatitis A. Hepatitis A is a contagious liver infection, which can cause fever, vomiting, diarrhea, joint pain, jaundice and even liver failure and death. This illness has been linked to foodborne sources as well as homelessness, injection drug use and incarceration. Cases have recently been reported in Colorado, and the current outbreak in the state has been ongoing since 2018. Since that time, there have been 303 cases resulting in 221 hospitalizations and two deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This outbreak illustrates the point that vaccine-preventable illness is an issue for adults as well.
Perhaps the most glaring example of vaccine preventable illness and death is influenza. Flu vaccination is the single most effective strategy to prevent flu and flu complications. It is recommended for everyone over age 6 months. Last year, there were more than 49,000 flu-related deaths in the U.S.
Consider making vaccination updates for you and your family a part of your New Year’s resolution. Let’s see if we can begin to turn back the tide of vaccine-preventable illness in 2020.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Ute Health Center in Towaoc.