In recent months, I have been approached at various moments by media, journalists, grassroots leaders, and legislators about the “controversy” of childhood vaccinations.
As a former practicing pediatrician and public health official, my view is that there is no controversy. Quite simply, get your children immunized, and according to schedules recommended by the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
If scientifically trained, highly accomplished, and well-respected public health and pediatric association professionals are immunizing their own children, then why would a community parent hesitate to do what these professionals are doing for their own children?
Aside from the decades of well-researched studies and scientific data about the benefits of childhood immunizations – weighed against any risks – let me share with you a professional, deeply personal experience I encountered about the dangers of avoiding or neglecting immunizations.
In 1990-91, I served as Deputy Health Commissioner for the Department of Public Health in the City of Philadelphia. I was principally responsible for the management of a local measles epidemic that was part of a national outbreak in urban America during that time. The Philadelphia epidemic resulted in roughly 1000 cases and 9 deaths of children.
The epidemic was driven by two issues. First, immunization coverage rates among pre-school aged children – particularly among low-income communities and communities of color – suffered significantly during that time. The crack cocaine epidemic made many parents forget that they were parents, and the Reagan Administration-era federal budget cuts reduced support for many public health outreach programs.
Secondly, and peculiar to Philadelphia, our public health department encountered an acute situation involving a large, fundamentalist church-run school where congregants and parents refused any medical treatment, including immunizations. Measles, which is a HIGHLY contagious disease, broke out in the church school and nearly every child contracted the Measles virus. A few hundred kids came down with the disease and six died, several of them for a lack of medical care. Three other Philadelphia children died from Measles who were not affiliated with the church.
So while we embarked on a range of strategies and tactics to try and contain the epidemic and save lives, I watched nine children buried as a result of a completely preventable and avoidable disease, and over a period of about two weeks.
If you want to read news accounts of this tragedy, just google “Faith Tabernacle Church Measles”, or “Philadelphia Measles Epidemic”, and you will see the reports.
This was a living public health nightmare that I would not wish upon any child, family, community, or city. The successes of our national child immunization program have allowed two generations of American families to experience life virtually free of polio, measles, mumps, rubella, tetanus, whooping cough, or meningitis. In the 1920’s, 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s, these diseases were rampant. And children died by the thousands.
I can appreciate the anxieties of parents concerned about the worrisome rise in childhood autism, although good science and data has been unable to establish any causal link between vaccines and autism. And I also understand, particularly in communities of color, the concerns about the distrust of government – the infamous federal government studies on African-Americans with syphilis took place more than 60 years ago, but the hurt is still raw in the black community today. But turning our backs on the best, high-quality science to leave our children exposed to preventable diseases will certainly result in more children dying needlessly from measles, whooping cough, and meningitis.
Get your children immunized. Please.