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Vaccines: Lifesavers With A PR Problem

Sacred Heart Pediatrics

Part of getting ready for the new school year is making sure students are up to date with their vaccines. While most parents are happy to immunize their children against life threatening diseases, there are still some loud voices in the media spreading doubt about vaccines. 

The very first vaccine was developed in 1796 by Dr. Edward Jenner, a physician in England who was treating patients suffering with Smallpox. "The lore at the time said dairymaids got an infection called Cowpox from their cows, and they were protected from the Smallpox, and indeed they were" said the late Dr. D. A. Henderson, the leader of the World Health Organization vaccination effort that eradicated Smallpox in the 1970s. "So (Jenner) took a little material from one from the pustules on the dairymaid's hand and then inoculated a little boy, and later showed that he was protected against Smallpox. So it was our world's first vaccine."

However, even in the earliest days of the Smallpox vaccine there was an anti-vaccine movement. Some newspapers at the time ran political cartoons of vaccinated people turning into cows. 

Credit Wikipedia Commons/Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division
In this cartoon, the British satirist James Gillray caricatured a scene at the Smallpox and Inoculation Hospital at St. Pancras, showing cowpox vaccine being administered to frightened young women, and cows emerging from different parts of people's bodies.

Today, the anti-vax movement is alive and well on the internet and certain cable channels. During a recent appearance on the Fox News Channel, Robert Kennedy Jr railed against the number of vaccines given to children, saying "I got three vaccines and I was fully compliant, I'm 63 years old. My children (had to get) 69 doses of 16 vaccines to be compliant."

The facts are vaccines have been proven safe over and over again. And, they save lives. "Vaccines are probably one of the biggest (advances we've developed) for the overall health of our children in the last hundred years" said Dr. Jessica Tate, a Pediatrician at the new Sacred Heart Pediatric Care Center in Gulf Breeze. "There's a very well laid out vaccine schedule. It's published and set up by the Centers for Disease Control. They have a separate committee, which is the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. And they're the ones that look at the different types of vaccines that we have and the optimal timing for giving these vaccines."  

And making sure infants and children keep to that schedule is important. "The reason is that we want to protect children from 14 serious and potentially deadly diseases before their second birthday" said Dr. Jane Seward from the CDC’s Division of Viral Diseases in the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. "And those diseases can occur at very young ages. These diseases are here, they can come back quickly, and the best way (for parents) to protect their child is to have the vaccine." The last vaccine that was added to the schedule was the rotovirus vaccine, which became available in the US in 2006.

One of the issues the anti-vaccine movement frequently brings up is Thimerosal, a mercury based chemical that used to be used in most vaccines. "It is ethyl mercury, which gets cleared very fast from the body" said Dr. Kevin Schopmeyer, a family physician at the Baptist Florida Blue Health Clinic in Pensacola. "(That's) in contrast to methyl mercury, which we're very well aware of on the Gulf Coast which we find in a lot of the fish (in the Gulf). Methyl mercury you want to (avoid) in large amounts because it stays in the body for a long time and can build up and have toxic effects. The ethyl mercury gets cleared very quickly from the body. Thmerosal is a chemical that helps protect vaccinations from bacteria. And that's only important in multi-use vials (of vaccine), vials that are used over and over again for multiple patients. So they put Thimerosal in there to protect from bacterial infections and spreading bacteria. Which is good, but there are those concerns about the mercury. So more and more we're using single dose vials which contain no Thimerosal at all." And for the most part the flu vaccine is the only vaccine in the US that still contains any Thimerosal.

There’s another factor that could be causing many parents to question vaccinating their children according to Dr. Paul Offit, the Director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. "I think vaccines become less compelling now that we don't see the diseases that vaccines prevent. In some ways they're a victim of their own success. But if we lower our guard these diseases will come back." Dr. Offit points out that there have been outbreaks of measles, mumps and whooping cough (pertusses) in pockets around the United States in recent years.

While it's individual children who are being vaccinated, it’s the communities where those children live and travel to that are reaping some of the benefits. When the majority of people in a community are vaccinated there a herd immunity that is built up that keeps those diseases from sneaking back in. That protection is especially important for children who cannot be vaccinated. "There are rare circumstances where that happens" said Sacred Heart’s Dr. Jessica Tate. "Only in very sick children, children that might be undergoing chemotherapy or have some sort of negative effect on their immune system, if they are (taking) certain medications. Those are the instances where we do modify that vaccine schedule."

Once a child has grown, there are still vaccine schedules to follow. Adults 19 years of age and older should get a T-Dap shot that is a booster protecting against tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis. Dr. Tate also says there is a pneumonia or pneumococcus vaccine for older adults, as well as a shingles vaccine and, of course, the annual flu shot. As for those back to school immunizations, you can find the full list at florida health dot gov, or see the list below from the Florida Health web site:

Latest Immunization Requirements

Florida requires certain vaccines to be administered before children may enroll and attend childcare and school.

Immunizations Required for Childcare and/or Family Daycare

(Age-appropriate doses as indicated)

  • Diphtheria-tetanus-acellular pertussis (DTaP)
  • Inactivated polio vaccine (IPV)
  • Measles-mumps-rubella (MMR)
  • Varicella (chickenpox)
  • Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib)
  • Pneumococcal conjugate (PCV13)
  • Hepatitis B (Hep B)

Public/Non-public Preschool Entry

(Age-appropriate doses as indicated)

  • DTaP
  • IPV
  • MMR
  • Hepatitis B (Hep B)
  • Varicella
  • Hib

Public/Non-public Schools Kindergarten Through 12th Grade

(Children entering, attending, or transferring to Florida schools)

  • Four or five doses of DTaP
  • Four or five doses of IPV
  • Two doses of MMR
  • Three doses of Hep B
  • One Tetanus-diphtheria-acellular pertussis (Tdap)
  • Two doses of Varicella (kindergarten effective with 2008–2009 school year, then an additional grade is added each year thereafter). Varicella vaccine is not required if there is a history of varicella disease documented by the health care provider.

Additional Immunization Requirements for 7th Grade Entry

Effective with 2009–2010 school year (then an additional grade is added each year thereafter), in addition to compliance with all other immunization requirements, children entering, attending, or transferring to the seventh grade in Florida schools must complete the following:

  • One Tetanus-diphtheria-acellular pertussis (Tdap)

Bob Barrett has been a radio broadcaster since the mid 1970s and has worked at stations from northern New York to south Florida and, oddly, has been able to make a living that way. He began work in public radio in 2001. Over the years he has produced nationally syndicated programs such as The Environment Show and The Health Show for Northeast Public Radio's National Productions.