Why We Vaccinate

As Doctors, Why We Vaccinate

Close-up of a doctor giving injection to a patient
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One doctor shares his story about a father who chose not to vaccinate his daughter -- and what happened next. Ths story, the physician says, is "why we vaccinate."

A Father Who Chose Not to Vaccinate

He kept saying: I thought I was doing the right thing.

He stood there looking at his daughter. She was in the bed in the intensive care unit. I was there as a doctor, but there wasn't much I could say. I could just listen.

He kept saying: I thought I was doing the right thing.

He wanted what was best. He had wanted her to have an idyllic childhood.

He lived where people were healthy and exercised. Food was healthy and organic. There wasn't much pollution; the trees and mountains were beautiful. People thought about their health and made decisions to keep themselves healthy. Vaccines weren’t idyllic. He'd made the choice not to vaccinate his daughter because he'd thought it was best for her.

He had thought about it. Maybe he'd thought she’d be safer without the little bits of the diseases from the vaccines. Maybe he'd worried about what else was in vaccines. Maybe he’d thought her immune system would be strong enough to fight off any infection; maybe he worried about autism. Maybe he didn't like the preservatives, which used to include mercury-containing thimerosal. Maybe he didn't know that vaccination means childhood infections are acquired by teens and adults infections for those who aren't vaccinated - which makes these diseases more dangerous now that she wasn't a little girl. 

He just thought it would be safer without those vaccines.

An Unfortunate Roll of the Dice

She’d been so healthy. But some diseases just happen. Leukemia, lupus, Hodgkin's lymphoma, diabetes, and other autoimmune diseases and cancers just happen. They happen in those who don’t vaccinate and in those who do.

It was an unfortunate role of the dice. It was nothing he could have prevented or foreseen.

She had one of these diseases now. She needed a transplant. She needed to be listed for a transplant. It needed to be soon. But she was sick now and needed to wait.

She was sicker now because on one of the few days she’d been well she'd gone to see her friends. Many others had chosen not to vaccinate. It hadn't seemed that risky. From a friend, she became sick with a disease a vaccine could have prevented.

Her dad kept repeating that he’d thought he’d known what was best for her.

I knew there wasn't anything that could be said.

We all said we hoped she'd get better soon, but we didn't know. He was the only person who criticized himself. His pain was palpable.

Only So Much Doctors Can Do

There also wasn't much we would do as doctors and nurses. We could make sure she ate and drank and was comfortable. We could give her some drugs and IV fluids, but there wasn't a wonder drug to make it all better.We hoped she'd get better and hoped she'd be able to go forward with the rest of her care. 

Diseases that have been prevented by vaccines don't always have good treatments. Doctors in the United States haven't treated some of these diseases in a generation. Drugs haven't been researched for diseases we thought would be eliminated.

I have worked where vaccines weren't available, where doctor visits were luxuries.

I have seen family members bring relatives dying from diseases a vaccine could have prevented. These families could even diagnose these diseases faster than some American physicians would have. These were diseases these families had seen again and again. For U.S. doctors, vaccine-preventable diseases were seen in books, not in hospital wards, but when there aren't vaccines, these are diseases everyone may know.

These people did not have the luxury of choosing. Some got better; some did not. These were diseases that one dollar and a time machine could have fixed.

But once the infection had started, medicine has little to offer. Medicine hasn’t worked on finding cures for these. These are diseases for which there is already an answer. There were vaccines.

Why Doctors Vaccinate

As doctors, we always hope vaccines aren't needed. We hope no one steps on a nail, no one has measles at school. When vaccines are needed it is always at the worst times. It's when a kid is already sick that a vaccine-preventable disease might be deadly. It's when a baby is too young to be vaccinated and is exposed. It's when mom is pregnant. There's no way we can make these situations better when they happen. We have to protect ourselves before. It's best just to be prepared and to prevent.That is why, as doctors, we vaccinate.

Facts about Vaccines

  • 2.5 million deaths each year are thought to be prevented by vaccination worldwide
  • 98 percent of vaccine-preventable deaths are due to four diseases: measles, Haemophilus influenza serotype b, pertussis, and tetanus.
  • Thimerosal, which contains mercury and has been used as a preservative, has been removed from all vaccines, except for multi-use vials of the influenza vaccine and one single use influenza vaccine (Fluvirin). The mercury in Thimerosal is ethymlercury, which has been shown to be safer than methylmercury, the mercury found in fish like tuna.
  • Herd Immunity protects those who cannot be vaccinated from a disease. The percentage that need to be vaccinated so that a disease doesn’t persist depends on the disease. As many as 83 to 94 percent of people need to be vaccinated for measles to eliminate the disease.
  • More than 25 diseases can be prevented by vaccines.
  • A vaccine eradicated smallpox in 1980.
  • Rabies used to kill all it infected, until a vaccine in the 1880s stopped the disease – if taken before symptoms.

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