This week the Utah Legislature is debating a bill from Rep. Carol Spackman-Moss (HB221) that seeks to provide education to the parents of Utah’s unimmunized children. There are more than 87,000 of Utah kids who are not protected by vaccines and that remain vulnerable to dangerous diseases. The parents of these kids will need to know how to protect them when outbreaks occur. While HB221 does not require vaccines and seeks only to provide the needed protective information to parents, the swirling discussions have identified some fear and confusion about how vaccines actually accomplish protecting our children.
First, vaccines are not magic, just well-focused science and technology. Second, various microbes (bacteria, viruses, etc.) are still a real danger to humans, particularly to children. For all of recorded history, humans have been at war with various microbes. Germs have killed and maimed more humans than all of our wars. In the American Civil War, a third of the soldiers killed were killed by guns, swords or cannons. Two out of three died from infections. In 2014, around our globe 20 separate wars killed 163,000 of us. In that same year, nine times that number, 1.5 million children, were killed by vaccine-preventable diseases. This translates to another innocent child dying every 20 seconds, from diseases that we could prevent, but we don’t. The threat of these diseases is never more than a plane ride away.
Now, immunizations are not like other medicines. They are not some pharmaceutical wonder drug to fix some problem or fill some lack within your body. They do not change your body’s chemical balance, are not vitamins to help you use nutrients, and are not antibiotics that kill some invading organism for you.
A vaccine, instead, is an educational lesson that simply teaches your immune system what the enemy germ looks like, before the enemy gets to you. This is like the FBI showing its “most wanted” posters, so that we, and our police, can quickly recognize the bad guys if they show up in the neighborhood. The vaccine introduces your immune system to the protein or polysaccharide surface coating of a germ, not the dangerous part of the germ itself. Your own natural defenses develop a long-term memory to remember what the enemy soldier’s uniform coat looks like. In the future, if this particular germ starts to invade, your defense system recognizes it immediately, counterattacks, and defeats the invader quickly.
Immunizations are among the most important inventions of human history, but of course they are not perfect. They are invented by humans, and made by humans, and humans have not yet reached perfection. But they are safe, just not perfectly safe. Immunizations are tested to a higher standard of safety than almost everything else a child takes into his body. They are safer than medicines, or shellfish, or peanut butter, or vitamins. They are safer than whatever your child licks off the floor. And vaccines are certainly safer than your child facing the world’s most dangerous germs alone and unprotected.
For 95 percent of Utah’s schoolchildren, vaccines have already provided the specific knowledge that their immune system needs to protect them from 43 of the world’s most dangerous germs. For the other 5 percent of our kids who remain unprotected, their parents need specific knowledge to provide protection, to strictly quarantine them, and to hide them away from danger when outbreaks come to town. HB221 just empowers our local and state health departments to deliver this specific knowledge to parents. Knowledge is power, and this knowledge may well be life-saving.
William E. Cosgrove, M.D., is president of the Utah chapter, American Academy of Pediatrics.