Risks with vaccinations small

It's disturbing to see children not vaccinated against killer diseases because of unfounded fears or pseudo scientific beliefs

I last wrote about saving the health care system some money by setting aside your fears and erroneous beliefs and to get your flu shot.

Speaking about fears, one of my earliest childhood recollections is getting my smallpox vaccination. That was at a time when smallpox was still a dreaded disease and I don’t think that the thought of eradicating this killer had even entered in anybody’s mind.

Times were different and it was normal that the family doctor came to the house to administer the vaccine by scratching my skin in two spots on my upper arm until he drew a bit of blood and put some live cowpox virus into the very superficial wounds.

I was really scared and my mother’s advice to be brave and cooperative fell on deaf ears. Instead, I would not be surprised if both my mother and the doctor would have been slightly deaf at the end of the procedure on account of my very loud protestations.

After the doctor was finished, I had to admit, I really did not feel any pain at all.

But the experience stuck vividly in my mind ever since and I have always felt sorry for the babies that were brought in my office for not just one, but, all told, often up to some 14 different vaccinations, be it that we can combine three or four vaccines in just one poke in the thigh.

Like with so many things in life, we have to make choices, and often the choice between protecting the child from a variety of potentially lethal diseases on the one hand, and on the other foregoing the safety of the subsequent immunity by refusing to vaccinate.

When I was a child, I accompanied my parents  to a lot of funerals of classmates or the burial of their siblings who had died as a result of diphteria, tetanus, measles, whooping cough and other infectious diseases, because other than the smallpox vaccine, all the others were not yet available.

Smallpox used to kill one in three adults and eight out of 10 children, if they were not vaccinated.

The ones who survived were often quite disfigured, with ugly deep scars on their faces and elsewhere on the body.

There was  no doubt about the efficacy of the vaccine, but a few people refused to be vaccinated. Most of those who refused were victims of religious leaders who led them to believe that the Creator was opposed, even though there is not a single reference in the bible about vaccinations. How could there be when the procedure did not even exist in biblical times?

But there were many in underdeveloped countries who would have gladly received the vaccine, if it would have been available to them.

By the time I was 30 years old and had qualified as a physician, more than 15 million people still died annually from this dreaded disease.

Ten years later, not a single person suffered from smallpox, because the World Health Organization completed a worldwide campaign to eradicate the disease by mass vaccination on every continent.

When the smallpox virus could not find a susceptible host any more, it died, since it needs a human being to survive.

As a result, all children born in the past 30 years have been spared both the fear and discomfort of the vaccination.

In the meantime, scientists developed vaccines against rabies and anthrax, measles, mumps, hepatitis, chickenpox, meningitis and polio.

Currently, the WHO and Unicef, with the assistance of 1.2 million Rotarians,  are waging a worldwide campaign to eradicate poliomyelitis from the planet. We missed the year 2000 target, mainly because of  civil war, internal strife, religious opposition and the conflicts  in Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India, but we are very close to completing the task, which will free up $2 billion dollars a year in vaccinations that are no longer necessary to protect our children against that disease.

Once polio has been eradicated, the world will tackle measles, a disease that decimated the aboriginal people in North America when the European settlers brought it to this continent. It still will have dire consequences for too many if you contract the disease if not protected by the vaccination.

It is disturbing to see that more and more parents refuse to have their children vaccinated against these killer diseases because they have unfounded fears or pseudo scientific beliefs that they are harming their offspring by the time proven vaccines.

Yes, there is the extremely rare, but severe, adverse reaction with vaccinations. But that risk is infinitely small compared to the considerable risk of losing a child unnecessarily from lack of protection.

If this trend continues, we will see a return of infant mortality like I witnessed many years ago.


Dr. Marco Terwiel is a retired family physician who lives in Maple Ridge.

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