Clinics pediatrician Dr Lisa Leavitt has written a guest editorial in the Marin Independent Journal about the importance. of early childhood immunizations.
In honor of National Immunization Awareness Month this August, I have a simple message to share: Vaccines save lives.
For the past 19 years, I’ve worked as a pediatrician at Marin Community Clinics and I’ve cared for many young children suffering from vaccine-preventable diseases, like pertussis.
It’s heartbreaking to hear a child with pertussis (or whooping cough) suffering from violent and uncontrollable coughing spells. And it’s very difficult to watch an infant desperately sucking air, making the “whooping” sound as she tries to catch her breath.
Whooping cough is highly contagious and extremely dangerous for babies under the age of one.
The California Department of Public Health recently issued a new warning about the dangers of whooping cough, noting that there have been 126 infant hospitalizations this year alone; tragically, one baby who became sick with whooping cough at less than three weeks of age died from the illness. (Infants can be protected when pregnant women get the whooping cough vaccine in the last trimester of pregnancy in order to pass protective antibodies to their newborns.)
State law requires children to have several vaccinations, including the whooping cough vaccine, in order to be admitted to school. The descriptions of these vaccine-preventable diseases underscore the serious nature of what’s at risk:
• Diphtheria — can lead to difficulty breathing, paralysis, heart failure and death.
• Measles — causes a full-body rash and can cause ear infections, pneumonia, encephalitis and death.
• Mumps — symptoms include fever, headache, muscle aches and extreme swelling of the salivary glands; complications may include swelling of ovaries or testicles as well as meningitis and encephalitis.
• Polio — a crippling and potentially deadly infectious disease that can invade the brain and spinal cord causing paralysis.
• Rubella (German measles) — causes fever and rash, cold symptoms and aching joints; for pregnant women, complications to the unborn baby may include deafness, cataracts, heart defects, mental retardation, and liver and spleen damage.
• Tetanus — symptoms include headache, fever, jaw cramping, muscle spasms, seizures and elevated blood pressure and heart rate; complications may include bone fractures, blood clots, pneumonia, breathing difficulties and death.
• Varicella (chicken pox) — causes a blister-like rash with itching and fever; complications may include bleeding, pneumonia, bone and joint infections, blood stream infections, and encephalitis.
• Whooping cough — causes violent coughing, troubled breathing and may cause pneumonia and death.
While it’s not pleasant to read, I share the symptoms and complications with you because these diseases can be dangerous and deadly.
And I urge you to vaccinate your children because these diseases are all preventable.
For those parents who are hesitant about vaccines or questioning, I recently read a helpful article by Holly O. Witteman, assistant professor of family medicine at Quebec’s Université Laval. The key difference, she says, between just providing vaccine information and engaging in shared decision-making is that shared decision-making focuses specifically on “helping people sort out what is important to them, their values, in the context of risk-benefit tradeoffs.”
Tools are available from the American Academy of Pediatrics, and other sources, to help families clarify their values and guide them through the decision-making process related to vaccinations.
I am hopeful that we as clinicians can continue helping patients understand what is important to them, the risks and the benefits of vaccinations, as well as available options.
As a pediatrician, my ultimate goal is to help parents understand that childhood immunization is the greatest health achievement of modern times and to spread the word: vaccines save lives.