From Marcus Plescia, MD MPH, and Stephen Keener, MD MPH, of the Mecklenburg County Health Department, in response to “The vaccination question” (March 1):
A recent Charlotte Observer article, while acknowledging the benefit of childhood vaccines in preventing disease, appears to emphasize the seriousness of vaccine-associated events. This could create alarm and uncertainty about vaccinations for parents with young children.
Any serious harm to any person—child or adult—is a tragedy, and our hearts are full of compassion for families whose lives are affected by such events. However, serious events associated with vaccines are extraordinarily rare. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the risk of serious adverse effects for most of the common, individual childhood vaccines is less than 1 in 1 million vaccinations. All vaccines are extensively tested and studied for safety, and must be approved by the vigorous review of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
In addition, a vaccine events monitoring system has been put into place in this country.
Ultimately, it is important to view any potential risk of childhood vaccines in the perspective of the death and disability they prevent. Before vaccines, parents in the United States could expect that every year polio would paralyze 10,000 children, rubella (German measles) would cause birth defects and mental retardation in as many as 20,000 newborns, Haemophilus influenzae type b bacteria (Hib) would cause meningitis in 15,000 children, leaving many with permanent brain damage, pertussis (whooping cough) would kill thousands of infants and disable many for life, and measles would infect 4 million children, killing 500 and leaving 4,000 with permanent disability.
The virtual absence of these tragic outcomes is testimony to the effectiveness of childhood vaccines. However, these infectious diseases have not gone away. In order to be protected from these diseases, universal vaccination is necessary.
The recent—and continuing—measles outbreak illustrates this point. In 2003 there were only 37 cases of measles in the U.S. Last year there were 644, and already in the first two months of this year, 170 cases have occurred, the vast majority in unvaccinated Americans.
The great tragedy of our present time is when a child dies or is disabled by a disease that is completely preventable by safe vaccines. It is important to keep in mind the devastating harm that is avoided by childhood vaccines. We strongly encourage routine childhood immunization.