Vaccines: The Real Numbers

I love my job as a pediatrician and I know that there is no better job for me. I love talking to families about sleep patterns and development. I enjoy watching kids grow from newborn babies into big kids going off to camp or college. But the most important thing I do for my patients’ health is to get kids immunized. Every day, pediatricians all around the country work hard to protect children by discussing the purpose and safety of vaccines with their parents and hoping that they follow through with the recommended vaccines.

The “anti-vaxxers” aren’t crazy. Like any parent, they want what’s best for their kids. The problem is they’re misguided by false information, erroneous data, and a misunderstanding of how research works. I can quote statistics, but studies show statistics don’t change people’s minds. But I still have some very convincing numbers.

Fifteen years ago, during my residency at Children’s in Chicago, a teenage boy at the hospital died of chicken pox encephalitis. He was an immune-compromised patient who came into contact with a disease that most of us take for granted. We all remember chicken pox parties from our childhood, right?  But before the chicken pox immunization was introduced in 1995, about 150 people each year would die in this country from complications from chicken pox — complications we no longer need to worry about.

Also during my residency, a 16-month-old girl came into the ER with a life-threatening infection. She had stopped breathing, turned blue, and required significant intervention to save her life. That serious, life threatening condition was pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough. Babies are given the DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis) vaccine at two, four, six, and fifteen months. The sixteen-month-old in the emergency room was an unvaccinated toddler.

I marvel that I’ve never seen seemingly “old-timey” diseases like polio, tetanus, or diphtheria, even though they are still very present in the developing world today. I’ve never seen a case of epiglottitis, a life threatening infection of the throat that can cause an infant’s airway to close, although twenty years ago, pediatricians saw it every year. That was virtually eradicated by the Hib vaccine which came out in the late 1980s.

The number I’m most proud of? In the over 11,000 patients in our practice, because of vaccines we have prevented innumerable life-threatening illnesses while causing exactly ZERO cases of autism. Or immune-system overload. Or aluminum toxicity. Or mercury poisoning. Because vaccines do NOT cause these problems, as has been shown by scientific study after scientific study.

Unfortunately, because of a decrease nationwide in all immunizations, we’re now seeing a resurgence of measles, a highly contagious and potentially deadly disease. A disease once considered eradicated because of the success of the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine.

I’m frustrated and furious about the people who claim false or misleading science as their gospel and spread their misinformation as terrifying truth. I’ll happily take my time with those fearful-of-vaccines new parents who want to make sure they’re taking the best possible care of the amazing new little creatures that have entered their lives. I’ll take the time to explain the science. To discuss statistics. To explore feelings. To re-examine. To convince. To reassure.

But as my patients know, if I have parents that don’t agree to the newborn vaccines by about two months, or who don’t agree to chicken pox or measles immunization by 18 months, I ask them to leave my practice. This is because of another important number: I want zero of my patients to be put at unnecessary risk in my waiting room and in my community.


Written by: Andy Bernstein, MD