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Staff file photo / A dose of flu vaccine is seen at the Alexian Brothers PACE facility in September 2016.

In 1796, Dr. Edward Jenner showed that the dreaded disease smallpox could be prevented by inoculation with a much milder virus known as cowpox. This substance was called a "vaccine" from the Latin word for cow. By 1977, smallpox had been eliminated from the planet outside of a few research laboratories.

Since then many other vaccines have been developed to prevent diseases which had plagued humankind for millennia. Measles, polio, tetanus (lockjaw), pertussis (whooping cough), diphtheria and influenza are among the many diseases that once killed millions, but which now can be prevented or minimized. The ironic downside of this medical success story is that the fear of these diseases has decreased along with the diseases themselves. Influenza killed millions more people in 1918-1919 than died in four years of World War I. Iron lungs once used to save the lives of those paralyzed by the polio virus are now only found in museums. Unlike smallpox, however, these diseases still exist in the world and can still be just as deadly as they once were.

Measles is a word for two different diseases. Rubella (also known as "German measles" because German doctors first described it) is a mild respiratory illness associated with a rash. However, if a pregnant woman contracts this otherwise mild disease, there is a high risk of serious damage to the developing fetus. For this reason, it is incredibly important that everyone get protected against rubella early in life.

Measles also refers to a serious illness also known as rubeola (or "red measles") which can lead to serious brain damage and death. Measles is extremely contagious but very preventable with vaccination. Measles was thought to be eliminated from the United States by 2000. However, it continues to occur, mostly among children who haven't been vaccinated.

Another advantage of vaccines extends even beyond the person receiving it. Preventing illness among those who can be vaccinated helps protect people who cannot receive vaccines for medical reasons, including patients with cancer and other serious illnesses which affect the immune system.

Many people fear vaccines because of myths and false information spread over the internet and by word of mouth. I would urge everyone to discuss these concerns with your physician or other health care practitioner. Some have heard that vaccines cause autism. This fear was started by an unethical researcher who was paid to spread false information. The original article was discredited and retracted, and all scientific research since has shown that there is no evidence that any vaccine causes autism.

Some social media posts from people claim terrible problems with vaccines. However, you will also notice that these websites usually have "natural" or "alternative" treatments to sell. It should be clear that there are no safe and effective alternatives to vaccinations. Whether called "traditional" or "alternative," we should only consider medical treatments which are scientifically shown to be safe and effective. Vaccines work and are incredibly safe. No human endeavor is 100% perfect, but the risks of vaccines are far outweighed by the benefits and lives saved by them.

We are currently in the flu season. While it is too early to know for sure, there is evidence that this year will be a bad one. While the flu vaccine is not perfect, it can protect people of all ages from this disease.

On a personal note, I would point out that my own father died of the flu at age 48, so I know very well the seriousness of this disease. Flu vaccines are widely available, including at Hamilton County Health Department.

Dr. Paul Hendricks is the Hamilton County Health Department Health officer. Contact him at 423-209-8000.

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