The Medical Minute: Immunization is an act of love

April 28, 2004

By Dr. John Messmer
Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center

Have you ever seen measles? How about mumps? When was the last time you heard of a child hospitalized or dying from whooping cough? If you grew up in the 1950s or earlier you probably can answer those questions, but for parents of infants today those diseases are ancient history. There was a time in our country when summer activities were curtailed due to polio outbreaks and parents panicked at any episode of fever in their children. Fear of paralysis and long months in an iron lung haunted Americans before the development of polio vaccine 50 years ago this month.

It's easy to be complacent if you've never known the former "diseases of childhood." So when the media reports allege adverse reactions to vaccines, parents may wonder if they are risking their children's health by vaccination. Just the opposite -- before polio vaccine became available, up to 20,000 cases of paralytic polio occurred every year in the US. Vaccines have now eliminated polio from the Western Hemisphere. So why continue vaccination? In 1994, polio was brought to Canada from India. Only widespread immunity of the population prevented an outbreak. If we stop vaccination for polio now, we put future generations at risk.

Before 1963, almost everyone developed measles. About 20 percent of infected people required hospitalization and there were an average of 450 deaths per year. Measles is very infectious. It occurs occasionally in the U.S. in groups who refuse vaccination. Foreign visitors who live in areas where vaccination may not be as common as in the United States can still carry the disease. Essentially, that makes an epidemic only an airplane flight away if we let ourselves lose our immunity.

Whooping cough, or pertussis, was very common before vaccines with about 200,000 cases reported each year and about 9,000 deaths in small children. It causes severe inflammation of small air passages in the lungs resulting in a violent cough and a "whooping" noise in small children because of their narrower airways. Unlike other diseases eliminated by vaccines, pertussis remains in the U.S. Older children and adults who develop pertussis have a persistent, hacking cough; they are not at great risk because their air passages are larger. Vaccinations have protected small children, but failure to vaccinate could readily result in new cases spread from adults.

Rubella or German measles, while not a serious disease for children, causes heart defects, deafness, mental retardation and cataracts in up to 90 percent of children born to women who develop it during pregnancy. An epidemic in 1964-65 resulted in 20,000 congenital rubella births. Due to vaccinations, only six possible cases were reported in 2000.

Although mumps is often a mild disease, it can result in seizures, paralysis, deafness, miscarriages and male sterility. The incidence has declined from more than 200,000 cases per year to less than 300 due to vaccinations.

Diphtheria has been under control since the 1920s, but it remains a risk from foreign travelers. Diphtheria bacteria infect the throat and produce a poison, which interferes with muscle and nerve function. In the 1990s, more than 150,000 cases and about 5,000 deaths from diphtheria were reported from states of the former Soviet Union. It is effectively prevented by vaccination. The older vaccine for pertussis did cause some potentially severe reactions, but the vaccine used currently is very safe.

This is National Infant Immunization week, during which we consider the benefits of vaccines for children under age 2. In addition to those discussed above, children are immunized against tetanus or lockjaw, two causes of meningitis, chickenpox and hepatitis B. It may seem like a lot of shots, and it is, but vaccination is an act of love to keep our children safe and healthy.

Why not just let others get vaccinated since the diseases are rare anyway? Because no vaccine is 100 percent effective. If part of the population is partly protected, epidemics can still occur, but if all the population is partly protected, disease is prevented by group immunity.

Despite the claims of some to the contrary, today's vaccines are actually very safe. As an act of parental love, vaccines rank with cuddling and feeding. For more information on immunizations and National Infant Immunization Week, visit

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 19, 2009