Chair of TMA’s Council on Child and Adolescent Health
A mother in my office told me that a friend who is a lawyer is planning not to vaccinate his baby after he is born. He feels humans were born with a natural immune system, and we should stand back and let it do its job. Although such a statement makes me sad, it also is a testament to how much we take for granted in the health of children. We expect children to be healthy and live into adulthood. We have forgotten the devastating illnesses of the past.
My father’s youngest sister died of diphtheria when she was 3 years old. I remember my aunt, who was in her 80s at the time, crying as she told me the story of watching her little sister cough and choke and eventually die. The pain of Helen’s loss never left her.
While I was in medical school, I had a friend at church who was spending his life in a wheelchair because of polio. A patient suffered permanent deafness in her ear after a long and frightening bout with meningitis. A friend of mine dealt with a pertussis (whooping cough) epidemic in residency in which several children died. I watched children with measles who would lie in a dark room and not move. During residency, I watched a child paralyzed for weeks to prevent him from dying of tetanus.
Even with the availability of vaccines, Texas has an increasing rate of pertussis, or whooping cough. The children cough to the point where they cannot breathe, and some die. We have had outbreaks of measles. For vaccines to be effective, more than 90 percent of the population needs to be vaccinated.
In answer to the father’s statement that we should let the natural human immune system do its job, all I can think is that it’s sad someone would be so determined to return to survival of the fittest. While it is true we would have many fewer humans on earth, and it might help global warming, who wants to return to the Middle Ages when widespread death from plague would kill large communities? Or even the early 1900s when children routinely died from a variety of illnesses including pneumonia, meningitis, and flu.
Vaccines are the single greatest scientific breakthrough of the 20th century to protect children. Vaccines keep them safe and allow them to grow to healthy adults. It is in a child’s best interest to be vaccinated; but because young children do not always make an adequate immune response to vaccines, adult family members also should get vaccinated for pertussis and flu to help provide even more protection for the kids.
The health and life of every child is important. Every child deserves to live a full life and a chance to succeed.