It seems that new vaccines are being developed and recommended all the time. I get the feeling that they aren’t nearly as necessary as doctors make them out to be. What’s your opinion?
Disease is miserable. It comes in as many forms as there are pathogens, and tissues and organs that can be affected by it. Some diseases remain mysteries; others are well understood but poorly managed. Fortunately, the defense systems built into our physiology work remarkably well. Like most things, however, they are imperfect in the face of disease-causing agents. While cancer, autoimmune disorders, and degenerative processes are still poorly controlled, infectious disorders are better managed. Even as recently as a few decades ago, infectious agents killed far more people than they do today. People over the age of 60 may remember the horrors of polio, the misery of measles, the dread of dysentery, the menace of meningitis, and the damaged babies that resulted from rubella.
Much has changed. Antibiotics have curbed bacterial infections. Sanitation has avoided the indiscriminate spread of disease. The use of vaccines has reduced the toll of viral illness. Many people, such as those who refuse to wash their hands after using the toilet, can pose a risk to themselves, but more so to others when they refuse immunization. It’s foolish to claim immunization is the final answer, but when a shingles vaccine reduces an older person’s risk by 60 percent, that’s significant.
An example of such protection is that seen with a human rotavirus vaccine. In Africa severe diarrhea has been a major killer of infants for decades. It was one of the major killers of bottle-fed babies, who stood a four-fifths chance of dying before reaching 1 year of age. Yet even breast-fed babies died in far higher proportions than did babies in the United Kingdom or Europe. The cause, in many cases, was a virus called human rotavirus. A vaccine was recently tested against this virus in Malawi and South Africa. Nearly 5,000 infants were divided into three groups. One group was given a placebo; the other two groups were given rotavirus vaccine in varying amounts.
Severe gastroenteritis occurred in 4.9 percent of the placebo group and in only 1.9 percent of the immunized infants.
People who are worried about vaccines think of adverse effects. These occurred in 9.7 percent of the vaccinated group, but also in 11.5 percent of the placebo group. This means that what are called “adverse” effects are often just coincidental events ascribed to the vaccine, because there were more in the unvaccinated group.* The 60 percent reduction shown in this study, when multiplied by the millions of children who get rotavirus-related diarrhea, translates into millions of children who were saved the misery and possible death caused by the disease.
As health promoters, this study deserves our attention.
*Statistical information taken from Shabir A. Madhi et al., “Effect of Human Rotavirus Vaccine on Severe Diarrhea in African Infants,” New England Journal of Medicine 362:289-298; NEJM.org, January 28, 2010.
Allan R. Handysides, M.B., Ch.B., FRCPC, FRCSC, FACOG,