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Small pox, polio, diphtheria, tetanus, measles, mumps and rubella are all potentially life-threatening diseases that have been almost completely eliminated from our society during our lifetimes. The reason for this is the routine childhood immunization program that has been widely accepted in the United States, as well as most of the modern world.

We often hear about the supposed side effects of immunizations, but we rarely hear about children getting the very diseases that the vaccines protect against. That’s because the immunization program has worked so well in preventing diseases that could have killed millions and caused untold suffering.

In fact, we’ve been so successful immunizing children and preventing diseases that some might wonder whether vaccines are still needed.

Here’s why immunizations are still necessary:

– Newborn babies are immune to many diseases, because they have antibody protection from their mothers. This immunity is mostly gone by the end of the first year of life, leaving unvaccinated babies susceptible to the abovementioned vaccine-preventable illnesses.

– Although our country has virtually eliminated these diseases, many Third World countries with poor immunization programs are still plagued by vaccine-preventable illnesses. These diseases are only a plane ride away. An infected traveler could bring such an illness back to the States, where it could spread rapidly if people were not adequately immunized.

– In the U.S., pertussis (whooping cough) is making a comeback, and tetanus is still infecting some people.

– Widespread immunization is necessary because it helps to keep a disease from spreading within a population. This helps to protect those few who, whether by choice or by necessity, are not immunized.

Immunizations are safe. A decade ago, an unsubstantiated study tried to link immunizations to autism. A well-publicized article from England sounded the alarm connecting the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to autism. This started a grassroots movement that has led many to reject all vaccinations. However, the majority of the authors of that article have withdrawn their support for it, and the lead author was found guilty of professional misconduct and had his license to practice medicine revoked.

Many well-controlled scientific studies have all concluded that there is no scientific or statistical relationship between immunizations and autism.

Unfortunately, the rates of immunized children entering kindergarten in Santa Cruz County are some of the lowest in the nation, with only 84 percent fully vaccinated. The San Lorenzo Valley is even lower, with just 65 percent fully immunized.

Just recently, Felton had a measles scare, prompting a major investigation. The outcome was favorable this time, as it did not infect anyone except the carrier, but a significant epidemic could spread through our area in the future because of our low immunization rates.

Until vaccine-preventable illnesses are eliminated worldwide, as with deadly smallpox — a result of the most successful immunization program ever — I strongly recommend that as many of our children as possible be routinely immunized and thus protected from potentially life-threatening diseases.

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I recently tuned in to a local radio station talk show in which the host and a “non-medical doctor” were criticizing vaccinations by citing false information and providing their personal bias. I would like to offer my view of vaccinations.

Most vaccines contain parts of a germ or toxin that have been made so weak that they can no longer cause illness, but will stimulate one’s immune system to make antibodies against that disease. Therefore, in the future, when they are exposed to that particular germ, the antibodies should prevent one from getting sick.

Since vaccines were first developed in the late 1700s, millions of lives have been saved. Smallpox, which wiped out entire civilizations, has actually been totally eliminated from the face of the Earth because of the smallpox vaccine. I watched friends come down with polio in the 1950s and become permanently paralyzed. This was a fearful disease until the polio vaccine banished it from the U.S.

We have effectively controlled outbreaks of common diseases such as measles, mumps, diphtheria and chicken pox. Before the chicken pox vaccine became available, more than 11,000 Americans were hospitalized and more than 100 died each year from the disease. It is estimated that measles, one of the most contagious diseases in the world, could cause almost 3 million deaths worldwide if vaccinations were stopped.

Commonly asked questions

Are vaccines safe? I believe they are. Thousands of people take part in clinical trials before a vaccine is approved. Millions of people are vaccinated every year. Some people may get local reactions of pain, swelling and redness at the vaccination site, but this lasts only a few days.

Can vaccines cause autism? I know this is an extremely controversial issue, but I can find no scientific proof in the peer-reviewed literature to directly link vaccines and autism. Common pediatric vaccines, with the exception of some flu shots, no longer contain mercury or thimerosal, chemicals often implicated with vaccine side effects.

Are infants getting too many shots at once? In general, infants tolerate these vaccines very well. Every day, infants come into contact with millions of particles such as bacteria, viruses and pollen that impact their immune systems. Delaying shots can leave a child unprotected against certain diseases, many of which can have dangerous complications such as seizures, brain damage, blindness and even death.

If everyone gets vaccinated, will my child still need them? It is true that an unimmunized child has less of a chance of catching a disease if everyone else is immunized, but if a larger number of children are not immunized, then there will be a greater chance of highly contagious diseases spreading through the population.

How long does immunity last after getting a vaccine? Many vaccines, such as measles and hepatitis B, lend lifetime immunity. Others, such as tetanus, last for many years but require booster shots.

The bottom line is that vaccinations have saved millions of lives, significantly lessened — and in cases eliminated — certain killer diseases, and have played a significant role in the increased lifespan of humans over the past several generations.

There are many well-intentioned individuals and groups who advocate against vaccinations. I hear what they are saying, but scientific evidence and multiple studies have demonstrated the safety and effectiveness of vaccinations.

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Flu activity seems to have quieted down recently, for which we can all be thankful. But the flu season is not over yet. Influenza is still out there.

Many states are reporting flu activity, which still remains a threat. Seasonal influenza usually peaks in February and March and can continue as late as May. So increased activity from the seasonal influenza, the H1N1 flu or both is still possible.

We need to remember the 1957-58 pandemic, when flu activity decreased in December and January. Thinking the worst was over, officials relaxed their push to get people vaccinated. When flu activity significantly returned in February and March, many were hospitalized, and deaths increased, as well. This could be a good lesson for us today.

So far during this flu season, most activity has been attributed to the H1N1 virus, which first appeared in April.

By the middle of November, the United States had reported roughly 47 million H1N1 flu cases. This resulted in well over 200,000 hospitalizations and caused nearly 10,000 deaths. About a thousand of those deaths were in children younger than 18, a number of whom were healthy before they caught the flu. That is why it is important not to take this disease lightly.

Although I think everyone would benefit from the flu vaccine, it is especially important for certain groups. You should be vaccinated if you:

• Have a chronic illness such as asthma, heart disease, or diabetes.

• Are pregnant.

• Are 65 years or older, and therefore are at increased risk of complications.

• Care for or live with a baby less than 6 months of age, as these infants are too young to be vaccinated for influenza.

Children who are 9 years old or younger need two doses of vaccine about a month apart; however, waiting more than a month between doses does not seem to decrease the effectiveness of the vaccine. Adults need only one dose.

HSN1 Virus Under a Microscope

Regarding popular worries about side effects of the H1N1 vaccine, data from the established surveillance systems would indicate that H1N1 has a safety profile similar to that of the seasonal flu vaccine. No significant pattern of adverse health events have been seen with either of the vaccines.

The bottom line is that although flu activity has died down this past month, the season is not over. It is still important to get vaccinated and be prepared for a possible increase in flu activity, which could occur between now and May. At this time, there appears to be enough vaccine for anyone who wants it.

I would like to thank the Palo Alto Medical Foundation’s Santa Cruz Incident Command Committee for supplying some of the information for this article.

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