Chicago mom and pediatrician: Why I am passionate about childhood vaccines

All of us have opinions and attitudes that are shaped by our own life experiences. My experiences as a pediatric resident made a huge impact on me and, as a result, I am passionate about the importance of vaccinations for children.

I was a pediatric resident from 1985 to 1988 and I spent a great deal of my time in the emergency rooms of hospitals on the south and west sides of Chicago. Many of the children did not have a regular doctor and their families used the ER as their source of primary care.

During that time, I took care of many young children with severe infectious diseases: meningitis (an infection of the covering of the brain and spinal cord), pneumonia (infection of the lung), cellulitis (skin infection), bacteremia (infection in the blood) and epiglottitis (severe infection of a structure in the throat). The most common cause of these infections during that time period was a bacteria called Haemophilus influenza, type b (Hib). Most strains of Hib live in the lining of the nose or throat and do not cause disease, but when the bacteria get into parts of the body like blood or spinal fluid, that are normally sterile, the bacteria cause invasive disease. Even with antibiotic treatment, children with invasive Hib disease were left with permanent neurologic damage, cognitive impairment, hearing loss, paralysis and sometimes death. As a young pediatric resident, it was devastating to see the effects of these infections on critically ill young children.

In 1985, the first Hib vaccine was introduced and an improved vaccine for use in younger children was introduced two years later. By the late 1980’s, the incidence of Hib had declined dramatically, and the incidence of invasive Hib disease has declined by more than 99 percent since the Hib vaccine was introduced. To me, this is amazing. What can you say is truly 99 percent effective? I spent many nights in my early training drawing blood and doing spinal taps on critically ill children. Some of the younger physicians in my practice have never seen or taken care of a child with invasive Hib disease because of the widespread use of Hib vaccine.

The success of the Hib vaccine is not unique. The same story can be told with nearly every vaccine that has been introduced. The infectious agents that vaccines protect our children against are not gone. They are out there around every corner, but our children don’t get these diseases because of the immunity they derive from vaccines. I understand many parents reluctance to “put more chemicals” into the tiny bodies of their infants. However, when you witness the devastation that these diseases cause, you realize that the benefits far outweigh the risks. As a parent, I am especially happy to offer my children this protection and, in fact, when my practice participated in a clinical trial of a combination vaccine, I jumped at the opportunity to sign my daughter up.

So what is the point of this story? Parents often come to the office armed with information about vaccines from celebrities, the Internet, the media or their playgroup, that is flawed or inaccurate. Vaccination is an important decision that requires frank and open discussion about the risks and benefits. The most educated source on the topic is your child’s pediatric health care provider. Their role is as an extension of you, incorporating their science based knowledge of the facts into the conversation. The ultimate decision is always yours, ideally with a health care provider as your partner.

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