The President’s Podium: A Vote for Vaccines

If we need any reason to remind our patients about the value of vaccines, all we need do is look around our country and the world. Diseases once thought to be under control, even eradicated, are reappearing with disturbing frequency.

Measles and mumps outbreaks have occurred in Canada, Europe, and the Middle East. Polio has shown a fierce stubbornness, resurfacing in Somalia after six years. The disease has reached Israel, which is re-vaccinating one million children, from Pakistan, one of three countries, along with Nigeria and Afghanistan, where it remains endemic.

Those counties may be far away, but distance no longer offers the protection it once did.  A measles outbreak in Brooklyn earlier this year, brought back by an overseas traveler, is a stark reminder that an outbreak – or epidemic – can be just one plane ride away.

In the U.S., outbreaks have occurred coast to coast. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 2012 was the worst year in six decades for whooping cough with nearly 42,000 cases. The number of measles cases in the U.S., recently highlighted by an outbreak centered in a Texas church whose ministers reportedly questioned the value of vaccines, is on track this year to be one of the highest in 17 years. Mumps is returning as well, as evidenced by more than 100 cases in Virginia.

While immunization rates may be high for children, too many people appear to be losing sight of the importance of vaccines. More states (though our record in Massachusetts has been good) are granting medical and philosophical exemptions from childhood vaccinations, and the medical-conspiracy theorists are still at it – and even given potential platforms to air their misguided notions. ABC Television’s appointment of an outspoken childhood vaccine critic as a co-host of a widely-watched morning show, for example, has rightly caused outrage. It prompted a Boston Globe editorial, saying “the network shouldn’t let her use the show as a platform for her theories. Giving them even a moment’s notice would be a disservice to the public.”

The paper recognized an unfortunate truism: despite mountains of evidence on the safety of vaccines, scare tactics can still work with some people.

The irony – and frustration – of all this is that as more diseases become drug-resistant,  as new ones like MERS emerge, we continue to fight the old ones we can prevent.

The focus on vaccines must also encompass more than children. The vaccine for HPV, the most commonly sexually transmitted infection, has yet to gain widespread acceptance, and more than 50,000 adults die each year from vaccine-preventable diseases and their complications.

CDC Director Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, in urging the medical community to promote vaccinations, said recently that “The doctor is the single most influential factor that determines whether kids get vaccinated.”  It’s true for adults, too.

The message is clear: As with so many other areas in health care, physicians can make the biggest difference, one patient at a time.

The President’s Podium is a new feature that appears regularly on the MMS Blog, offering Dr. Dunlap’s commentary on a range of issues in health and medicine.   

  1. Jay says:

    I had been an advocate for vaccines until my daughter received the HPV vaccine and shortly after the 3rd shot she developed rheumatoid arthritis. There was no family history of the disease on either side. I am convinced, although no doctor would agree, that the vaccine definately contributed to my daughter getting the disease. Although vaccines play an important role, until you are directly effected by the negative result of a vaccine it’s easy to stand on a soapbox and scoff at the warnings of those who have been effected by them.

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