Friday, October 29, 2010

Is Prevention Better than Cure?

I hate injections. Not to the point where I'll avoid them, but I do get myself into a bit of a state if I know I need one. It's especially bad now that I have a child who needs them on a fairly regular basis for the first few years of his life. Despite my reservations I've made the decision to go and get a flu vaccination next week. Mainly because I'm spending a lot of time in schools and playgroups, surrounded by children, these days, and also because the years when I haven't had the shot, I've been so sick that doctor's visits were a weekly occurrence. I'm in two minds about whether or not to give J the flu vax as well, and I'm not sure I can explain why.

The issue of vaccines for babies and children generates heated debate and impassioned argument, and has a tendency to divide opinions. Despite advances in modern medicine and the number of serious illnesses that have all but been eradicated because of vaccines, there are still people out there who don't believe in vaccinating themselves or their children. We recently watched a documentary about it which basically made the naysayers look like complete idiots. One mother argued that since polio is virtually non-existent, there was no point continuing to vaccinate against it. She seemed oblivious to the fact that the disease is rare because of vaccines. There was also footage of an anti-vaccine protest where protesters were driven by the "links" between the MMR vaccine and autism. One scientist published one article several years ago (which has since been retracted) discussing this alleged link which lead to a world wide backlash against vaccines. His theories have since been disproven many times over but a lingering doubt remains.

Type the words "vaccine and autism" into Google and you'll be hit with an overwhelming number of sites dedicated to the argument over whether or not there is in fact a link between the two. It's quite scary, so if you're a worrier like me, don't go there. I did however, read some interesting statistics while doing my "research." In the early 1900's whooping cough (pertussis) killed 5 in every 1000 babies before their 5th birthday in the U.S. When a vaccine was introduced the number of deaths declined by 70%. In the US, due to the backlash against vaccines that has occurred in recent years, the number of cases is again rising, to the point where they declared an epidemic in California last year. The World Health Organisation estimates that world wide 300,000 children die every year from this preventable disease, making it one of the leading causes of death in the world. Prior to modern vaccination, the child mortality rates for now preventable diseases was horrific (and in some countries it still is!). The number of alleged vaccine related autism cases pales into insignificance in comparison. I admit there is nothing insignificant about having your child diagnosed with autism, but the risks just don't add up when you consider the alternative: a world where the general population is no longer inoculated against these terrible diseases.

I'm aware that I'm at risk of sounding like I'm sitting on the fence with what I'm about to say, but I'm not. I'm very clearly pro-vaccine but I do at times understand the point of view of those on the other side of the fence. Despite the fact that I consider myself to be quite rational, and knowing that vaccination is so necessary, I still feel slightly uncomfortable with the idea. It was tough watching my brand new baby being injected with a vaccine to prevent a disease he may never (god willing) be exposed to. A few days after he was born he was given a BCG shot to protect him against tuberculosis, an injection that creates a wound that stays around for months, and leaves a nasty scar that will be a permanent reminder that our son started life in a country still grappling with this terrible disease. Having my son vaccinated wasn't an issue for me, until he arrived. While I was pregnant I read about a young baby that had died after contracting whooping cough. She was too young to be vaccinated against it but happened to live in an area (northern rivers, NSW) where many parents had chosen not to vaccinate their children. She contracted it from a toddler who was visiting. If nothing else that story should be enough to convince anyone with doubts about vaccines that they really do save lives, so why isn't it that black and white?

Personally I think it has more to do with the vaccines themselves than with the diseases they prevent. As with any medical treatment, I don't believe that we should accept vaccines without knowing what they do and what they contain. The arguments against vaccines that contain things like mercury (Thimerosal) as a preservative, are very valid, and we do have a right to know what's in them and why. Again, in the documentary we watched, there was a lot of blah blah about pharmaceutical companies and the money they make out of vaccines and it all being some sort of scheme to rort the public out of millions of dollars. After working in the pharmacy industry for several years I don't think this is a completely ludicrous suggestion, but it isn't enough of a reason to forego vaccines altogether. The schedule of vaccines is also used as a reason for not vaccinating. There have been times when I have wondered if it's really necessary to vaccinate against several diseases all at once.  It seems like an awful lot for a little body to cope with, and it's no wonder some children have reactions after their jabs. At the same time, I think I'd rather watch my son suffer the mild discomfort of an injection rather than the lifelong effects of hepatitis, or struggling for breath with whooping cough.

So I guess after all that my point is this: vaccines are necessary, not just for the health of your own children but for the health of others, but we should also make it a point to inform ourselves about them and to keep the medical profession on their toes. I think the fact that we do argue about whether or not to vaccinate our children is a good thing; it proves that vaccines have done their job. If smallpox was still prevalent in society today there's no way we'd be arguing about vaccines; we'd do whatever we needed to do to protect our children.

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