The recent measles outbreak stemming from Disneyland in California provided a glimpse of what could happen if more individuals stopped vaccinating. The outbreak led to 117 individuals across multiple states being infected. Parents of infants and those with weak immune systems feared exposure. Although it is an unfamiliar feeling for those of us vaccinated, this event was an unfortunate reminder of life without access to vaccines.
Prior to vaccines, there was a sense of uncertainty and panic. Little was known about the various diseases that plagued cities across the country. Nor was much known about how these diseases could be prevented and treated. Comparing the high infection and fatality rate in the United States before vaccines to today, such fear seems justified.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), prior to vaccines, each year 3 to 4 million people were infected with measles, 48,000 were hospitalized, and around 400 to 500 died from the disease. Today, it’s extremely rare to see a case of measles.
As another example, before the MMR vaccine, rubella infected more than 12 million Americans, killed 2,000 infants and caused 11,000 miscarriages in just one year alone. Recently, rubella has officially been declared eliminated from the Americas.
Perhaps the most powerful comparison is of polio. In the early 1930s, polio was one of the most feared diseases leaving a wake of destruction. Each year, more than 35,000 people were paralyzed from the disease and another 1,500 to 2,000 died annually. Those that did survive the disease typically were wheelchair-bound or required an iron lung. After the introduction of the vaccine, infection rates dropped dramatically. The U.S. has been polio-free for more than 30 years.
Using history as an example, the benefits of vaccines are clear. Vaccines are the most effective tools we have to prevent infectious diseases. From infants to adults, vaccines have helped counteract the spread of viruses and have saved billions of lives around the world.
The past also provides a reminder not to take vaccines for granted. Diseases haven’t disappeared. As we can see from experience this year, when the herd community starts to erode, we find ourselves battling diseases we had previously overcome. Providers need to ensure that their patients are vaccinated and continue to receive boosters as appropriate. The more people who are vaccinated, the fewer chances that anyone will be susceptible to a preventable disease.