Thursday, February 5, 2015

Are Vaccines Safe?

The MEASLES outbreak has again rekindled the fires of passion that surround VACCINES in the United States. As a family physician and mom, to me there is no debate. VACCINES SAVE LIVES. Are there risks with vaccines? Yes, (mostly transiently sore arms) but they are minor compared to the risks of the diseases that they minimize or prevent. Does my family vaccinate our children and ourselves? YES. We also wear seat belts, exercise, and try to make healthy food choices...but I digress.

In our country, we are fortunate to have extensive health monitoring systems in place, particularly in regards to VACCINE SAFETY. Three major organizations gather data:

  • VAERS (Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System)- which is open to the public; ANYONE can and should file any concerns about a vaccine-related event.
  • VSD (Vaccine Safety Datalink)- cooperative effort between the CDC and 9 Major Health Care Organizations (such as Kaiser, simplified with data collection through Electronic Medical Records)
  • CISA (Clinical Immunization Safety Assessment Network)- A CDC Project coordinated through 7 Major Medical Academic/Research Centers 

All of these organizations gather data from adverse events after vaccines, and then the data is analyzed to look for patterns. If one person in, let's say, ten thousand develop a problem after a vaccine, that pattern will be recognized and more information gathered to try and determine if there is a true link with the vaccine. It's important to recognize that there are medical problems (including rare cancers or blood disorders) that will be diagnosed in time proximity with someone receiving a vaccine. Obviously, if I get a flu vaccine on Monday and am diagnosed with Disease X on Friday, that does not mean that my flu vaccine CAUSED my disease X. The difficulty, of course, is determining when a vaccine does indeed CAUSE a medical problem, and for that, scientists look for consistent patterns.

I recognize that if MY family member were diagnosed with a difficult, awful, or rare disease, I would absolutely look for a cause...and if there had been a recent vaccine, I understand why fingers point that direction. However, for myself, my family and my patients, I trust that our vaccines are thoroughly monitored. I know that these vaccines SAVE LIVES and save countless sick days, expense and heartache, and I feel very fortunate to live in a country where vaccinations are recommended as routine health promotion.

BOTTOM LINE: Vaccines save lives. Period. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Measles Memo: VACCINES WORK!

By now you have probably heard about the MEASLES outbreak that originated in Disneyland last month. At this point, over 100 cases (that span at least 14 states) have been documented since the first of this year...and we have only entered February. If you are my age or older (40-something), odds are good you remember HAVING the measles. In my case, I missed the coveted LAST DAY OF SCHOOL in 7th grade...miserably feverish, coughing, aching and covered in itchy red spots, so that particular event is etched in my middle school memories. I lay in bed sobbing in my self-pity for missing all the fun at school that day, as well as the first days of summer. But in truth, I was lucky. The worst part of measles for me was my pre-teenage angst.

Fast forward to medical school, during another measles outbreak in the late 1980's. Our pediatric hospital ward in Houston's medical center was literally filled with very sick kids dealing with complications of measles. Did you know that roughly three out of ten people infected with the measles develops complications? Most of the time, those complications are nonlethal medical "frustrations" like ear infections or diarrhea, but measles also can cause far more serious complications such as pneumonia or encephalitis (brain involvement). Watching a family grieve the loss of a young child from any cause is heartbreaking, but from a preventable disease...words escape me.

In 2000, measles was declared "eliminated" from the United States, meaning that this disease is no longer constantly present here. Measles was not, however, eliminated world-wide. In 2013, the World Health Organization recorded over 400 DEATHS from measles every DAY- primarily in young children under the age of 5. Before routine measles vaccination in the United States (which began in the 1960's), there were over 3 MILLION cases of measles per year, including over 500 annual deaths and nearly 50,000 hospitalizations (each year).  Today, thanks to widespread immunization, we are facing a measles outbreak that is only (so far) in the hundreds of cases.

The good news here is that vaccination WORKS- it saves lives. Worldwide immunization strategies with measles have decreased measles deaths by 75% in the last decade, saving an estimated 15.6 million lives. Who is at the most risk today? Anyone un-immunized, including our precious children too young to be immunized yet (less than one year old).

BOTTOM LINE: The major lesson learned from Measles immunization? VACCINES SAVE LIVES. Check with your doctor to be sure your family is up to date!