The Importance of Immunization

Smallpox, once dreaded by parents everywhere, has been entirely eradicated. Mumps, which afflicted millions, now barely crosses the minds of many parents. Disease after disease after disease, serious threats to previous generations, are now little more than names to most people in the developed world.

The reason for these medical victories? Vaccination. Vaccination has achieved a more than 99 percent reduction in the incidence of measles and of polio, a 98 percent reduction in Hib meningitis cases.

Indeed, a recent rise in pertussis cases is widely believed to be due to a drop in immunizations. This has happened before. During the 1970s, the Japanese largely stopped vaccinating for whooping cough. In 1979 there was a pertussis outbreak that killed 41 people. Something similar happened at that time in the United Kingdom and led to 36 deaths and 100,000 cases of the disease.

With rubella, the effect is particularly marked. Although the disease is typically harmless, if pregnant women contract it in the first trimester, their babies are prone to being born with heart defects, cataracts, mental retardation, and deafness. Before the rubella vaccine was used, there was a rubella epidemic in 1964 and 1965 that affected more than 31,000 pregnant women; more than a third of them miscarried, and there were 2,100 neonatal deaths. Many of the survivors were deaf, blind, or mentally handicapped.

Thirty-five years later, only 40 pregnant women in the United States—mostly foreign-born and not vaccinated—contracted rubella, and just six gave birth to affected babies. The vaccination program has been tremendously successful.

In these cases, the diseases have not been completely eradicated. Too many people, lulled into a false sense of security, think the low incidence of these ailments means vaccination isn’t important. On the contrary, it means the fight is almost won, the goal of total eradication is within reach, and another generation of vaccinated people is needed to help make that final push.

What these people also fail to realize is that it is because of widespread vaccination that these diseases are no longer the threats they once were. Which is what happened to mumps and smallpox.

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