By Janet R. Gilsdorf
Every April, when the robins sing and the trees erupt in leaves, I think of Brad — of the curtain wafting through his open window, of the sounds of his iron lung from within, of the heartache of his family. Brad and I grew up at a time when worried mothers barred their children from swimming pools, the circus, and the Fourth of July parade for fear of paralysis. It was constantly on everyone’s minds, cast a shadow over all summertime activities. In spite of the caution, Brad got polio — bad polio, which further terrorized our mothers. It still haunts me. If, somehow, he had managed to avoid the virus for a couple years until the Salk vaccine arrived, none of that — the iron lung, the shriveled limbs, the sling to hold up his head — would have happened.
In 1954, many children in my town, myself included, became “Polio Pioneers” because our parents made us participate in the massive clinical trial of the Salk vaccine. Some of us received the shot of killed virus, others received a placebo. We were proud, albeit scared, to get those jabs, to be part of a big, important experiment. Our moms and dads would have done anything to rid the country of that dreaded disease.
Because the vaccine is so effective, mothers today aren’t terrified of polio. Children in our neighborhoods aren’t growing up in iron lungs or shuffling to school in leg braces. We seem so safe. But our world is smaller than it used to be. The oceans along our coasts can’t stop a pestilence from reaching us from abroad. A polio virus infecting a child in Pakistan, Nigeria, or Afghanistan can hop a plane to New York or Los Angeles or Frankfurt or London, find an unimmunized child, and spread to other unimmunized people. Our earth is not yet free of polio.
Germs are like things that go bump in the night. They can’t been seen, they lurk in familiar places, they are sometimes very harmful, and they instill great fear—some justified, some not.
Fear of measles, like fear of polio, is justified. In the old days, one in twenty children with measles developed pneumonia, one or two in a thousand died. The vaccine changed all that in the developed world. But, measles continues to rage in underdeveloped countries. In a race for very high contagiousness, the measles virus ties the chickenpox virus (which causes another vaccine-preventable childhood infection). Both viruses can catch a breeze and fly. Or they may linger in still air for over an hour. They, too, ride airplanes. This year alone, outbreaks of measles started by imported cases have occurred in New York, California, Massachusetts, Washington, Texas, British Columbia, Italy, Germany, and Netherlands.
Fear of whooping cough (aka pertussis) is also justified. In the pediatric hospital where I work, two young children have died of this infection in the past several years and many others have suffered from the disease, which used to be called “the one-hundred day cough.” It lasts a long time and antibiotic treatment does nothing to shorten the course. Young children with pertussis may quit breathing, have seizures, or bleed into their eyes. It spreads like invisible smoke around high schools and places where people gather … and cough on each other.
On the other hand, fear of vaccines — immunizations against measles, polio, chickenpox, or whooping cough — is hard to understand. In the grand scheme of things, any of these serious infections is a much greater threat than the minimal side effects of a vaccine to prevent them. Just ask the mothers of the children who died of pertussis in my hospital. It’s true that the absolute risk of these infections in resource rich areas is small. But, for even rare infections, a 0.01% risk of disease translates into hundreds of healthy children who don’t have to be sick, or worse yet die, of a preventable infection.
In spite of the great success of vaccines, they aren’t perfect. Perfection is a tall order. Still we can do better. Fortunately, because of the work of my medical and scientific colleagues, new vaccines under development hold promise to be more effective with fewer doses, to provide increased durability of vaccine-induced immunity, and to be even freer of their already rare side effects. And, we’re creating vaccines against respiratory syncytial virus, Staphylococcus aureus, group A Streptococcus, herpes virus, and HIV, to name a few.
Brad would be proud of how far we have come in protecting our children from the horrible affliction that crippled him. He’d also be furious at our failure to vaccinate all our children. Every single one of them. He’d tell us that no child should ever be sacrificed to the ravages of polio or measles or chicken pox or whooping cough.
Janet R. Gilsdorf, MD is the Robert P. Kelch Research Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School and pediatric infectious diseases physician at C. S. Mott Children’s Hospital, Ann Arbor. She is also professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan and President-elect of the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society. Her research focuses on developing new vaccines against Haemophilus influenzae, a bacterium that causes ear infections in children and bronchitis in older adults. She is the author of Inside/Outside: A Physician’s Journey with Breast Cancer and the novel Ten Days.
To raise awareness of World Immunization Week, the editors of Clinical Infectious Diseases, The Journal of Infectious Diseases, Open Forum Infectious Diseases, and Journal of the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society have highlighted recent, topical articles, which have been made freely available throughout the observance week in a World Immunization Week Virtual Issue. Oxford University Press publishes The Journal of Infectious Diseases, Clinical Infectious Diseases, and Open Forum Infectious Diseases on behalf of the HIV Medicine Association and the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA), and Journal of the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society on behalf of the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society (PIDS).
The Journal of the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society (JPIDS), the official journal of the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society, is dedicated to perinatal, childhood, and adolescent infectious diseases. The journal is a high-quality source of original research articles, clinical trial reports, guidelines, and topical reviews, with particular attention to the interests and needs of the global pediatric infectious diseases communities.