Q. Why vaccinate a child for a disease like polio, which doesn't even exist anymore, or for hepatitis B, which occurs mainly among specific groups, such as IV drug users and people with AIDS?
A. Thanks to the extraordinary success of the polio vaccine, there has not been a single case of natural polio in the United States since 1979. But there's no guarantee that the disease won't return. In some parts of the world, including Asia and Africa, this debilitating disease still maims and kills thousands of people each year. Few of the parents who question the vaccine's necessity are old enough to recall the fear that gripped America in the years before its creation. The disease was so contagious that parents of young children were reluctant to let their children swim in community pools or play in public parks; the first sign of a sore throat or fever (two early symptoms) could incite panic. When the vaccine became available in 1955, it was understandably hailed by many as a miracle drug.
Today, unvaccinated children are protected by what's called the "herd effect" -- the fact that most children are immunized means that highly contagious diseases like polio have few opportunities to invade. But when the number of people who choose not to vaccinate goes up, even a little bit, so do the numbers of children who get sick from vaccine-preventable illnesses. Hence the recent outbreaks of measles in England, Ireland, and other areas where immunization rates have fallen.
Although babies may not be among the groups at highest risk for hepatitis B, they are still at risk because the virus can be transmitted through casual contact, such as sharing toothbrushes and washcloths. The disease is serious -- effects include inflammation of the liver, liver disease, and liver cancer -- so the vaccine is now recommended for all ages. Plus, the vaccine will continue to protect a child into adulthood, when he might engage in the types of behavior that put him in a high-risk group. In other words, he's better off getting the vaccine now.
Maureen Connolly is the coauthor of The Essential C-Section Guide (Broadway Books).
Originally published in American Baby magazine, February 2004.
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