Guest contributor, Leigh B. Grossman, M.D., is the Medical Alumni Endowed Professor of Pediatric Infectious Disease and the Associate Dean for International Programs in the School of Medicine at the University of Virginia. She has edited and authored five books on infectious disease care and prevention, including her most recent, “The Parent’s Survival Guide to Daycare Infections,” released in October 2016.

When my parents were growing up in the early 1900s, bloodstream infections, diphtheria, hepatitis, influenza, lockjaw (tetanus), measles, meningitis, pneumonia, mumps, scarlet fever, and whooping cough (pertussis), were every day threats. If that generation had been told that they could prevent these infections with a shot, they would have lined up without question; they knew the diseases and they understood the devastating consequences. 

When I was growing up in the mid-1900s, vaccines against diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus had become the routine and most of us were vaccinated at school, without parental consent or concern.  When the measles, mumps, polio, and rubella (German Measles) vaccines were developed and introduced, they again were adopted without question as universal vaccination for all children.

The resulting rapid decreases in epidemic and individual disease numbers were incredible. We saw disease and death prevented, and the devastating disabilities from these diseases that have no targeted therapies all but disappeared, too.

During my medical training in the late 1900s, I admitted infants and children to the hospital each day with bloodstream infections, influenza, hepatitis, meningitis, and pneumonia. As a pediatrician and a new parent, when these newer vaccines became available, I was first in line to prevent these infections in my own children and counseled all parents to obtain these immunizations for their children. 

Present day: How the risk of disease remains

As a pediatrician and infectious disease doctor, I counsel parents in the developed world (where we rarely see these diseases today) on the benefits of knowing that they’ve done everything in their power to prevent these lethal and devastating infections by immunizing their children. 

I also teach and treat patients in the developing world and it’s painful to see adults and children in these countries dying of hepatitis, lockjaw (tetanus), meningitis, and pneumonia because these preventive vaccines are not available to them. Most parents in these countries would walk for days to obtain these vaccines for their children or themselves – if they had the option.

Because the diseases have been prevented and are no longer widespread in the United States, they are viewed incorrectly by some parents as no longer a threat – and therefore not worth vaccinating against. However, these illness-causing germs are still common in the United States and continue to pose a real threat to our children.

As the world becomes smaller and our children grow up, they’ll likely encounter people from places where the vaccines to prevent these diseases simply aren’t available. Or your child may travel to other countries where they may be exposed to these vaccine-preventable germs. If unvaccinated, they will have no protection.

Risk versus incredible reward

Many parents worry about the risks of vaccination for their children. They understand that their child may develop a sore arm or fever from the vaccine, or the exceedingly rare but possible neurological problems that can include extreme irritability, seizures, and developmental problems. None of us want to expose our normal, healthy children to anything that could make them sick.

However, by not vaccinating, considering the very low risk of any untoward side effects caused by our currently available vaccines, these same parents are making another decision – one that keeps their children at risk of acquiring an infection that is either lethal or has potentially devastating and life-long consequences. 

Nothing we expose our children to is without risk. Riding in a car or on a school bus, climbing a tree, riding a bicycle or a horse, skiing, swimming, playing a sport, hiking or even eating certain foods – they all carry risks. But we expose our children to all of these dangers because we want them to have normal and full lives.

In a sense, we’ve lost our understanding of the life-threatening and devastating infections we now prevent with vaccines because we are so fortunate to have them. These germs are still common:

  • Chickenpox
  • Diphtheria
  • Hemophilus influenzae (bloodstream infection, meningitis)
  • Hepatitis A and B
  • Human Papillomavirus (cervical/uterine cancer)
  • Measles
  • Meningococcus (bloodstream infection, meningitis)
  • Mumps
  • Pertussis (whooping cough)
  • Pneumococcus (pneumonia, ear infection, bloodstream infection, meningitis)
  • Polio
  • Rotavirus (diarrhea in infants)
  • Rubella (German Measles)
  • Tetanus (lockjaw)

When making the decision to vaccinate or not, consider how very lucky we are to even have that choice.