As an infection control nurse at Vanderbilt University's Medical Center, I've become increasingly concerned that our country may be dropping its guard in the battle against vaccine-preventable diseases.
In the United States, we no longer worry about many of the diseases that routinely crippled and killed Americans at the beginning of the 20th century. We've become so complacent, in fact, that a new outbreak could trigger an epidemic that might overrun our nation's public health system.
Far too many people view childhood diseases like diphtheria, whooping cough, rubella, chicken pox and measles as curiosities from the past.
At Vanderbilt, we continue to see these diseases ``from the past'' - especially in immigrant groups who sometimes are not immunized by U.S. standards, and in religious groups that refuse vaccination because of their beliefs.
Compounding our concerns is a fledgling parent revolt against universal vaccination programs. Some organized parent groups, often prodded by self-appointed experts, are even seeking to encourage other parents to opt out of the traditional vaccine regimen.
Like other groups who seem to materialize out of the blue, they are adept at using the Internet to promote scare tactics and dispense misinformation. One of the biggest hoaxes is that vaccinations can cause some children to become autistic.
While those allegations are refuted by the findings of numerous studies as well as by the expert opinion of leading health and medical officials, they are kept alive by promoters of junk science and quack cures.
As a result, we're seeing more cases of childhood preventable diseases. I have watched helplessly as infants with pertussis - better known as whopping cough - turn blue after an agonizing coughing spell.
These children get a wild, frightened look in their eyes as they gasp for breath. They usually vomit after their coughing spell, then collapse into a tired heap to rest up before the next session. Adults with pertussis can cough so hard that they break ribs. Can you imagine the horror a small child is going through?
We also have experienced an increase in rubella transported into the United States by immigrants from Latin America - many of whom have never been immunized against it. As a result, we're seeing new cases of congenital rubella - a disease I would never have guessed I would see in my lifetime.
We recently tried to save two infants infected with rubella. They were deaf, blind, brain-damaged and suffering severe heart defects. Neither survived. I saw their parents huddled over their cribs, powerless to do anything for their children. A simple vaccination earlier in their childhood would have saved their lives.
Other diseases like diphtheria could well make a comeback in this country. Diphtheria is a disease that causes a membrane to form across the trachea, slowly suffocating the patient if untreated.
There have been few recent cases in the United States, but 10 years ago a completely preventable outbreak of diphtheria in Russia claimed the lives of more than 5,000 people.
From an infection control standpoint, I shudder to think about the catastrophe that might occur if large numbers of parents decided not to vaccinate their children against these ``outdated'' diseases.
A local outbreak of measles or chicken pox, for instance, would fill community hospitals with hundreds of children who would need specialized medical attention. The extremely contagious nature of their disease would require rooms with special air filters and negative airflow to protect patients with weakened immune systems from diseases such as leukemia.
To prevent such nightmare scenarios, we need the help of every parent in America. I can tell you firsthand that no parent can suffer a worse fate than losing a child. I know because I lost my own son to congenital heart disease.
My son's congenital heart disease, however, was random and not preventable. But pertussis, measles, mumps, chicken pox and rubella are preventable by a simple vaccination. Parents should not succumb to charlatans preaching against vaccination. They should make sure their children receive their scheduled vaccinations as they move through childhood.
It's an easy-to-fulfill parental and civic duty that will make our country a healthier place to live.
Vicki Brinsko is a registered nurse and infection control coordinator at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Readers may write to her at: Vanderbilt University Medical Center, 1211 22nd Ave. South, Nashville, Tenn. 37232.
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