As a child of the 1950s I well remember a time when American kids by the tens of thousands were still being crippled – and sometimes killed – by polio. In the 1950s, the fear of polio was palpable across the nation.
There were hospital wards filled with polio-paralyzed children trapped in iron lungs (a grim technology many younger adults have no memory of), which were used to keep them alive.
The following short film clip may be hard for some to look at, but is a reminder of how things were . . . not so very long ago.
In 1954, the year I was born, the first major field trials of the Salk vaccine took place, and the following year – after review of the data - a national vaccination campaign was launched.
By 1957, after two years of vaccination - the number of new polio cases in the United States dropped from over 35,000 to under 6,000. And by 1964, that number had dropped to just 121 cases.
An incredible feat, in less than a decade.
Another vaccine victory is illustrated by the following chart showing the number of Pertussis cases (whooping cough) in California over the past 60 years.
The dramatic drop in Pertussis - which began in the early 1950s – closely follows the introduction of the first whole-cell pertussis vaccine combined with diphtheria and tetanus toxoids (DTP) was introduced in the mid-1940s.
Nationwide, in the 1940s, about 160,000 cases of Pertussis were recorded, and the illness claimed about 5,000 lives.
By 1976 the number of reported cases reached a record-low of 1,010 cases, a decrease of 99%. But over the past decade the number of cases has steadily risen, and last year 21,000 cases were reported.
This rise in Pertussis cases, in part, can be traced to a decreasing number of parents getting their kids vaccinated, and a general lapsing of adult booster vaccinations.
Which brings us to an interview with Dr. Paul Offit – the vaccine research scientist and pediatrician that anti-vaccine activists love to hate – which appears in today’s Time Magazine.
By Meredith Melnick Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011
Childhood inoculations protect us against deadly infectious diseases like measles, whooping cough and polio. But they are also the source of near constant conflict — most recently in the Feb. 22 Supreme Court decision which ruled in favor of a vaccine manufacturer over the family of a disabled girl.
In recent years, some parents have begun to refuse vaccination for their children, influenced by fringe activists who believe it causes autism, brain damage and other ailments. Dr. Paul Offit, Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and the Director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, has seen the consequences: preventable childhood deaths, community outbreaks of outdated diseases and misinformed, angry parents.
Admittedly, vaccines are neither 100% safe nor are they 100% effective. I know of no medicine that can meet both (or even one) of those standards.
But vaccines have an excellent safety record, and while not perfect, have done a remarkable job reducing (and in some cases eliminating) infectious diseases from our communities.
Despite the tremendous good vaccines have done over the years, anti-vaccination forces continue to use fear tactics to push their agenda. In The Monsters Are Due On Vaccine Street I wrote:
Practically every day I see articles on the internet purporting to tell the `truth’ about vaccines, and in nearly every case it is about as far removed from the truth as you can get and still remain on this planet.
Their techniques are simple, but effective.
First, they use biased and inflammatory language, filled with incendiary adjectives like `deadly’, `useless’, `dangerous’, or `untested’ practically anytime the word `vaccine’ is used.
Second, they build a straw man, by claiming that vaccines are supposed to be 100% safe and effective (which no one in medicine claims), and then proceed to knock that down with some story about a purported bad reaction or side effect.
And third . . . and used with great effect online . . . they cherry pick a news article that somehow bolsters their claims, without acknowledging any evidence to the contrary.
Extremely effective tactics – particularly on the internet - that in recent years have encouraged a growing number of parents to file personal belief exemptions to avoid vaccinating their children.
A worrisome trend that, should it escalate, could endanger the progress our communities have made against a number of infectious childhood diseases.