There is no doubt about it. Vaccines save lives and improve potential quality of lives for many others. The number of deaths due to communicable diseases has dropped dramatically in the past 60 years.
Deaths are relatively easy to quantify. For example, a simple graph showing deaths attributable to measles infections in England and Wales has widely circulated.
It clearly shows a dramatic decease that coincides with the introduction of the first vaccine in the 1960s.
Similar results have been attained with mumps (95-99% reduction rate), rubella (95-99% reduction rate), and others. The greatest success stories are smallpox, which has been eradicated worldwide, and polio which has virtually disappeared in the western world. Of course, like all effective medical treatments, vaccines have the potential for side effects, and there is a need to quantify them as well. However, care must be taken to ensure the results can not be misconstrued.
Erika Check Hayden, over at The Last Word On Nothing, critiques a report commissioned by the US Institute of Medicine. This report compiles a list of vaccines, the conditions that appeared after the vaccine, and an estimate of causality.
The report includes hundreds of pages filled with nerve-wracking case reports about individual children who suffered grave injuries and even death after vaccination. But there is nothing in the report to help a parent put these difficult cases into context – no similar anecdotes of the horrendous, preventable suffering that can be averted by vaccines. Nor does the report provide any estimate of how rare these events really are. The report merely notes that “the committee was not tasked with assessing the benefits (effectiveness) of vaccines.” (Emphasis in the original report.)
Further, the language of the report is nearly nonsensical. The committee decided that in some cases, “[e]vidence convincingly supports a causal relationship” between the vaccine and a particular adverse event, while for others, the committee said, “[e]vidence favors acceptance of a causal relationship.” These phrases have no meaning in science, let alone in real life. Those parents who actually take the time to look at this report – admittedly, few probably will – will probably come away from it more rather than less confused.
Although “not tasked with assessing the benefits” common sense suggests they put some emphasis on the safety, efficacy, and necessity of vaccines. Saying they are “in generally very safe” is a long way from stating they are a necessary component in promoting public health worldwide. perhaps they could have been more forceful, and I doubt my blog or hers will pick up the slack.
The report was commissioned by the US Health and Human Services Department’s Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, which pays people who suffer certain health problems linked to vaccines. This program provides relief for that small percentage of the US population who are negatively affected by vaccines while protecting manufacturers and others from frivolous lawsuits. While listing the potential side effects of vaccines is important for medical professionals, people who are opposed will just use this as ammunition in their war against vaccines. What is needed is a consideration of the potential harm from contracting these preventable diseases.
Here are a few:
Measles has the potential for
- pneumonia (lung infection), signs of which are fast, difficult breathing, chest pain and deteriorating condition,
- hepatitis (liver infection),
- encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), which can be fatal, so watch for drowsiness, headache and vomiting,
- low platelet count, known medically as thrombocytopenia, which affects the blood’s ability to clot,
- bronchitis and croup (infection of the airways), characterised by a hacking or barking cough, and
- squint, if the virus affects the nerves and muscles of the eye.
In rare cases, measles can lead to the following conditions:
- serious eye disorders, such as an infection of the optic nerve (the nerve that transmits information from the eye to the brain), known as optic neuritis, which can lead to blindness,
- heart and nervous system problems,
- a serious brain complication known as subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE), which can sometimes occur several years after measles. Although the condition is fatal, it is very rare, occurring in only 1 in every 100,000 cases of measles.
Common complications of mumps are:
- pain and swelling of the testicles (orchitis) – which affects 20% of all males who get mumps after puberty
- pain and swelling of the ovaries (oophoritis) – which affects 5% of all females who get mumps after puberty
- inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis) – which occurs in 5% of cases
- viral meningitis – which occurs in an estimated 1-10% of all cases.
Rubella can lead to
- Pneumonia – inflammation in the lungs caused by an infection. It causes fast, laboured breathing and chest pain.
- Encephalitis – inflammation of the brain.
- Thrombocytopaenia – an abnormal drop in the number of platelets in your blood (platelets are cells that help your blood to clot). Thrombocytopaenia can cause bleeding into your vital areas, such as your eyes or your brain.
Children born to infected mothers can develop
- cataracts (cloudy patches in the lens of the eye) and other eye defects
- cardiac (heart) abnormalities
- a small head compared to the rest of the body, as the brain is not fully developed
- a slower than normal growth rate
- inflamed (swollen) wounds in the brain, liver, lungs or bone marrow
The effects of polio are well known
Paralytic polio can lead to temporary or permanent muscle paralysis, disability, and deformities of the hips, ankles and feet. Although many deformities can be corrected with surgery and physical therapy, these treatments may not be options in developing nations where polio is still endemic. As a result, children who survive polio may spend their lives with severe disabilities.
There is also the possibility of post-polio syndrome that, while rarely fatal, can lead to falls due to weakness, Malnutrition, dehydration, pneumonia, acute respiratory failure, and osteoporosis.
None of these are trivial and all are preventable through the use of vaccines.
The anti-vaccination anti-science crowd is having an unnecessary negative impact on public health. We need to be careful about supplying them with information they can twist to mislead people and endanger no only their own their children, but the rest of us as well.