A few years ago I saw my mom reading a book about the 1918 flu epidemic. I borrowed it from her, and got around to reading through it last summer. The book bogged down a bit in a few parts, but it was still interesting. (Did you know more soldiers died from the flu than were killed in action? Did you know that another flu epidemic is likely to strike in the next 20 years?) Even though I am not by any stretch of the imagination a "science person," I do enjoy a good book about diseases because I find the story of epidemics and plagues fascinating. Germs don't really scare me much, for whatever reason. Deep water, yes. Spiders, ohmygosh yes. Germs? Eh, not so much.
Because of my basic interest and knowledge of flu epidemics and such, I have kept up with news stories about the bird flu and other flu-ish outbreaks. I also have followed the media circus surrounding vaccinations. Just in the last several years, vaccinations have come under fire as a possible cause for autism. First it was the MMR vaccination that caused autism, but it turned out there wasn't sufficient evidence to support this claim. Then it was mercury in vaccinations that caused autism, but that wasn't fact either. Then it was the chickenpox vaccination, but no clear link there either.
If I needed further proof of the positives of vaccinations, I got it in the form of a new book that just came out last week. Parent Bloggers Network sent me a proof copy of Dr. Paul Offit's new book called Vaccinated: One Man's Quest to Defeat the World's Deadliest Diseases, which I just finished only moments ago (I started it several weeks ago and then homework fell from the heavens, so I couldn't get back to reading it until this weekend).
The story is about Maurice Hilleman, a scientist from Montana. Never heard of him? Have you heard of measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, hep A, hep B, pneumococcus, meningoccus, and Hib? Hilleman is the guy who created vaccines to all these diseases. Yeah. Impressive.
Before Hilleman's death in April 2005, he told his story to Dr. Offit, resulting in this book that encompasses not only his life and professional career, but also the history of the field in which he was working. The narrative, while occasionally jumping awkwardly between direct quotes and explanatory prose, holds together as an informative and compelling story. It's no quick read, that's for sure, but it is well researched. And while the plot centers around Hilleman, there are lots of side-plots that bring in a considerable amount of the history of vaccinations--stories about Pasteur (rabies vaccine), Salk and Sabin (polio). If you're not really interested like I am in all the backstory and political shadows of vaccines, then the first three-fourths of the book might not catch your attention. But the final few chapters should be mandatory reading for anyone who questions whether or not vaccinations are necessary.
I know that there is a growing population of parents out there who don't want to vaccinate their kids, whether for personal or religious reasons. Even in my own Christian community, not many parents support the idea of giving teenage girls the papillomavirus vaccine, which prevents cervical cancer. And up until I read this book I thought, "Well, whatever. It's their kid." I effectively had no opinion on vaccinations.
This book changed my mind on that.
As I was reading about life in sub-Saharan Africa where most children aren't able to get vaccinated, the thought occurred to me that one of the reasons why I feel safe to take my young children out into society, allowing them to play with other children, is because I assume that those children have been vaccinated against some of the deadlier diseases. Certainly, I know that my kids aren't immune to all contagious diseases out there, but I don't imagine that they will catch measles. I don't worry about polio or diphtheria or mumps or smallpox. I don't worry about these diseases because with immunizations these are preventable diseases. But what about the kids who parents don't believe in immunizations? What about the parents who are willing to put my child's life in jeopardy for their personal beliefs? What about the parents who are essentially counting on every one else to immunize their children so that their own non-immunized kid won't get sick? When personal beliefs end up with very public results, yeah, well, I have opinions about that.
Sure, some kids have compromised immune systems and can't get vaccines. I get that. And I certainly understand the hesitancy to use new vaccines, especially if their pediatricians aren't recommending them. When I took Jules in for her Well Baby check a few weeks ago, I passed on one of the new vaccines (for a disease I hadn't heard of and don't remember) because our doctor said that it had just been rereleased after a decade-long FDA ban because the original version had nasty side-effects. My decision was also helped along because our doctor said he wasn't giving it to his daughter. Maybe this makes me a hypocrite, what with all my "vaccinate your kids" passion, but I guess the immunizations I feel most strongly about using are the ones that have been around for years.
At the end of the day, I'll definitely remember one of the final quotes from the book:
"Despite all of society's negative pressures, vaccination has proven itself beyond the shadow of a doubt to be the most logical way to control infectious diseases in a community.... The success story is undeniable. There is no measles, a little bit of mumps, no rubella, a little bit of hepatitis B in many communities. And the reason is vaccination.... But it's not free. It comes with a price, an imperative. And that is that you have to keep using it."
So, thumbs up on the book. And yay for Maurice Hilleman.