One fact of life about being a pediatrician is that we’re exposed to a diverse array of viral and bacterial pathogens every day (and, often several on the same day!). Pediatricians employ several different strategies to avoid exposure to infectious microbes in a clinic full of sick and well children, with frequent hand-washing being the most effective. Other tactics include eschewing shaking hands with patients and parents (we fist-bump instead), eating only in the office break room, and not wearing neckties (traditional ties — easy targets for grabby infants — are microbe-magnets, whereas bowties are probably the wiser, and safer, fashion choice).
Nevertheless, pediatricians get sick from the constant barrage of pathogens we are exposed to. We’ve all had more than our share of colds and coughs (I had croup — croup! — just a few years ago which was bad enough to land me in the ER), viral sore throats and strep throats, the barfies and the squirts from gastrointestinal viruses, viral rashes (I once brought home and shared Fifth Disease with the rest of my family), and other assorted infectious maladies. (For me, the worst was a presumed enterovirus infection that most likely caused mild diarrhea for a young patient but, for me, took out part of my upper spinal cord, leaving my arms significantly, and permanently, weak and disabled.)
But do you know what pediatricians don’t get? Polio, that’s what! Even though I was exposed to it for the three years I lived in the Philippines, I didn’t get it. Do you know why? I was vaccinated against poliovirus as a child with the all-new oral Sabin vaccine, that’s why.
There is a myth, repeated among misinformed people, that vaccines haven’t earned the right to be called the “miracles of modern medicine.” That distinction, they say, goes to “better sanitation.” Yet, as cheap and effective polio vaccines have become available to practically every child in every corner of the world — places clean and filthy — polio has practically disappeared, except where war and superstitious beliefs prevent the distribution of vaccines.
Did the polio vaccine save my life?
Do you know what else pediatricians don’t get? Measles. That’s right. Acknowledged as the most contagious pathogen on the planet, measles remains one of the leading causes of death among young children in developing nations. Consider that in 2013, the World Health Organization reported 145,700 deaths from measles — that’s 400 deaths every day, 16 every hour — despite the fact that, globally in 2013, 84% of children received one measles vaccine by their first birthday. 84% is a high number, considering the many economic, religious, and political obstacles to vaccinating children in this world — but still not high enough to provide protective-for-all “herd immunity.”
There is a myth, repeated among misinformed people, that measles is mild and no one dies from it. Just this month, the New York Times reported more than 23,000 cases, mostly in children, of measles, mostly in children, in Africa, with 400 pediatric deaths.
Did getting the measles vaccine in 1963 (when it was introduced as the gold standard of prevention of measles) and again, as a booster dose, in 1990, save my life?
Thank goodness I never had bacterial meningitis from the HiB or the pneumococcus bacteria. These once common infections, which cause gruesome deaths or, in those who survive, horrible and permanent neurologic and cognitive damage in unvaccinated children, can now safely and effectively be prevented by giving HiB and Prevnar vaccines to babies and toddlers.
There is a myth, told by misinformed people, that it’s better to get one of these infections and allow your body to fight it, naturally, than to get a vaccine that can safely prevent it. I can tell you that bacterial meningitis isn’t one of these. Neither are all the other vaccine-preventable infections.
Was my life saved by getting vaccinated when I was a child? Has my life been saved many times over because my parents, who survived the scourges of childhood infections like measles and pertussis and polio and meningitis, saw to it that their child would have a better chance at a healthier life? Do you think the vaccines you received when you were a child saved your life, at least once?
Will the flu vaccine I’ve received this month save my life in February? Will it save yours?
I guess, thankfully, we’ll never know.