Infectious disease is back in the headlines, thanks to a nationwide West Nile fever outbreak that has sickened over a 1,000 people and caused the death of dozens. The epidemic shows how such a disease can spread through the population when there is no vaccine to prevent it.
Fortunately, we do have vaccines for most of the infectious diseases that formerly were common. But recent headlines in Georgia show diseases once thought “beaten,” like whooping cough are on the rise again. There is no need for this, since we have had a good vaccine to prevent whooping cough for decades. In fact, the population should now be vaccine-protected against whooping cough, measles, diphtheria, several kinds of bacterial meningitis and other serious infectious diseases.
But some children (and many adults) are not protected. In Georgia, for instance, less than three-quarters of children younger than 3 are up-to-date on their shots. In many other states, figures are little or no better.
As a consequence, this year the United States appears headed for its worst year for whooping cough in more than 50 years. Nearly 18,000 cases of whooping cough have been reported nationally as of mid-year 2012, which is double the number at this time last year. Similarly, in 2011, 222 measles cases were reported -- nearly four times the usual number and the most since 1996.
And it’s important to think beyond childhood immunization. Teens and preteens need vaccines to protect them against meningitis and other diseases. Seniors need shots to protect them against pneumonia and shingles. Nearly everybody older than 6 months needs a flu shot every fall. Flu kills 35,000 people every year.
Why is this important protection against infection being so widely neglected? Some parents may think they are too busy to take their child to the doctor for routine immunizations -- but what they might not consider is that they will be a lot busier if their child comes down with measles or even a relatively benign disease like chickenpox. Some may think the shots will cost too much -- but they can be free at the public health department through the “Vaccines for Children” Program.
Sadly, some parents leave their children unprotected because of the mistaken belief that immunization causes autism. This has been thoroughly studied. No link between immunization and autism exists or ever has existed.
August was officially National Immunization Month -- perhaps because that is also back-to-school month, few took notice. Perhaps a better strategy would be to make every month “National Immunization Month.” There is no need to wait for the week before school starts to take your kids to the doctor or health department. It’s the smartest and safest plan to make sure you and your loved ones are updated on your vaccines before another week of school, work or life, passes, and another disease once thought beaten continues to make a comeback in our state and nation.
Daniel S. Blumenthal, MD, MPH is a professor of community health and preventive medicine and associate dean for community health at Morehouse School of Medicine.
By DANIEL S. BLUMENTHAL — Special to The Telegraph