Every year, in developing countries, 6 million children less than 5 years of age die. What is even more shocking is that most of the deaths are due to problems that we, in North America take for granted. For example, children die of malnutrition and dehydration from diarrhea because they do not have adequate food supply or clean drinking water. Pneumonia, measles and malaria are also among the top killers. The common trend across these causes is that they are all preventable. Agencies like the United Nations and World Health Organization (WHO) are constantly struggling to provide the basics including access to clean water, adequate nutritious food supply, vaccination and anti- malaria nets and medications. Such interventions would literally save millions of lives. Unfortunately, in many countries, these attempts are hampered by local political, civil and even military unrest.
Reflecting on the above statistics, I cannot help but to think how lucky we are in North America. Yes, we have our own health issues, mostly related to lifestyle and other social determinants of health. However, most childhood infections and their devastating consequences are extremely rare in the developed countries. This in large part is due to the availability of clean water, sanitation and vaccination. Looking at vaccinations through the lens of the developing world is important.
Vaccines are probably one of the most significant advances in modern-day medicine. Even in developed countries, when for one reason or another, vaccines are not available for a specific disease that infection rate rises. In Russia, during the 1980’s, post the iron curtain collapse, political and economic unrest led to a shortage of the diphtheria vaccine. As a result, diphtheria cases began to appear. As soon as the vaccination supply was re-established, diphtheria cases where once again fully prevented. A similar incident occurred in England, when there was wide-spread media concern about the safety of the whooping cough vaccine. During this time, the number of whooping cough cases increased tremendously. Again, once vaccination rates went up, the cases of whooping cough decreased dramatically. Whooping cough (Pertussis) and diphtheria are potentially deadly diseases, especially in young children.
As a pediatrician, I have seen children die of meningitis. I remember one case in particular, when a child died of meningitis due to bacteria called Hemophilus Influenza (not the flu virus). Tragically a few weeks later, a vaccine for this disease was released. This vaccine would have prevented this deadly infection.
I hope these reflections can help you better understand and appreciate vaccines and their importance. Yes, there may be some rare side effects and we constantly strive to improve vaccines to make them as safe and effective as possible. However, if you or any one you know thinks of vaccines in a negative way, just think of the millions of children that die annually because they are not vaccinated. After consideration of the above, I hope the terms vaccine-preventable-disease, immunization and vaccination ring a positive tone.
Pediatrician DR.PAUL Roumeliotis is certified by the American Board of Pediatrics and Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. The information provided above is designed to be an educational aid only. It is not intended to replace the advice and care of your child’s physician, nor is it intended to be used for medical diagnosis or treatment. If you suspect that your child has a medical condition always consult a physician.