08 October 2009

Saving lives

A while back, I mentioned the fact I'm still walking around and able to write to you is due to modern science.

I've not going to write often about it (this being only the second post in over a year), but, the truth remains that a lot of us are still walking around because of modern science. The single biggest contributor to that is vaccination. There's a very nice video here, from a pediatrician, Joseph Albeitz (h/t Phil Plait) that outlines some of the magnitude of good that vaccination has done:

In looking at vaccination, as he discusses, you're looking at saving hundreds of millions of lives. The list of things that could contend for saving more is awfully short.

One thing he mentions in passing, which I'll spend a little more time on, is herd immunity. There's a feeling out there, a false sense of security, that as long as 'everyone else' is vaccinated, it doesn't matter if your kids are. If your kids were the only unvaccinated kids, that might be true. But, in reality, you're not the only person who might think that way. Your kids interact with many other children. Once the number of unvaccinated children is high enough (depending on the disease it's in the range 10-30%), the disease can establish itself and spread. The 'herd' is immune only if enough people are immune. Once enough fail to vaccinate, you're a breeding ground for the disease. Worse, you're a breeding ground to infect people who did get vaccinated -- vaccines aren't 100% effective in all people. If enough of you are carriers, then the disease can spread to other kids and kill them.

I know that measles is commonly considered a trivial disease. But that 'trivial' disease kills over a million per year (listen to the video). I'm thinking that not killing off a million children each year would be a good thing. Similarly for the numbers of polio victims -- with vaccination, the number who would get it goes to zero. Both of these diseases are like smallpox in an important way -- they only spread between people. If we reached a point where nobody had the disease, as was the case for smallpox, then nobody would ever again need to be vaccinated against it. It would be gone. As the Dr. mentions, they're about 99% of the way there for polio. Measles have farther to go. Both, amazingly, can be eradicated.

Digressing a second, but not really, is my genealogy. One of my direct ancestors died from smallpox. Lived long enough to have kids, obviously. But died 20-30 years early because of the smallpox. As many a person who looks in to genealogy has observed, you see a lot of very short lives when you look back then (1700s - mid 1800s), many of them children who were never even named. Much of the reason for that change is vaccination. That ancestor (Zeboeth Brittain, how's that for a name?) died before the vaccine was discovered -- 1790, vs. 1796 for Edward Jenner's discovery. But I think he'd be amazed at the idea that the disease that killed him could be erased from the face of the planet -- and it now has been. Measles and polio can be as well.


PeteB said...

Absolutely fantastic video I find both inspiring and makes me angry

Vickie Grumbine said...

I liked this post very much and think it covers an important topic. I have to admit, though, that while I'm very comfortable w/ vaccines that have been used on millions of people, I'm a little nervous about new vaccines. The swine flu vaccine doesn't have a track record (at least I think it doesn't) and I don't know how serious the swine flu itself is. Do you or any readers have any thoughts on the matter?

Robert Grumbine said...


Take some of the anger to energize yourself so that next time an anti-vaccination letter to the editor, or an anti-vaccination article is run, you write a letter yourself. (Generalize to other venues you might encounter such things.) This is a very good video, I think, but far from the only. Pointing more people to it should be a help.


The swine flu vaccine (or, as the pork industry wants us to call it, the H1N1) is new. But, then again, so is every year's vaccine for the seasonal flu. As far as this goes, the H1N1 vaccine -- developed for a particular, known, target -- I'll guess is an even safer bet than the seasonal flu vaccine. For the seasonal flu, there's a certain amount of guesswork as to what strains to develop for, and more than a little bit of racing to get it developed in time for the fall flu season.

My own take (as you know :-) is that for the seasonal flu vaccine, I'm only concerned about it for people who are in high risk groups (like me, with asthma, but to quote from the CDC's information on flu:

People who should get a seasonal flu vaccination each year include:

1. Children aged 6 months up to their 19th birthday
2. Pregnant women
3. People 50 years of age and older
4. People of any age with certain chronic medical conditions
5. People who live in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities
6. People who live with or care for those at high risk for complications from flu, including:
1. Health care workers
2. Household contacts of persons at high risk for complications from the flu
3. Household contacts and out of home caregivers of children less than 6 months of age (these children are too young to be vaccinated)

TheChemistryOfBeer said...

15 dead from swine flu in Alabama.

The vaccine should be no different than regular flu in risk (minimal for those with no egg allergies).

Swine flu hits children and those with breathing problems particularly hard, compared to regular flu.