Wednesday, February 4, 2015


My oldest son is becoming a computer whiz. He helps program his high school's robot for robotics competitions. He works on the school's programming team. He takes advanced computer programming classes.

I think the boy may have a future in this kind of stuff.

Ahhh, the good old days
While he has a grasp of the programming for modern PCs and mobile devices (yes, he wants to make a few apps for that), he sometimes fails to realize just how far we have come in the realm of technology. Why, back in the early 1960s, computers with less power than an average cell phone filled an entire room. How far we have come...

Even with the advances in computing power, programmers understood the results of their labor were only as good as the data entered into the systems. Back in 1963, a new expression was first used - GIGO. Garbage in - garbage out. Basically, if you put bad information in, you got bad information out.

It's funny that this was first used in 1963, the same year that a measles vaccine was available for public use. Before the vaccine, in a bad year, three to four million Americans were infected each year, with 48,000 hospitalized, 4,000 suffering encephalitis and 400  to 500 deaths directly attributable to the disease.

After the vaccine, the incidence of this disease dropped significantly. The vaccine worked so well, in fact, that public health officials held out hope that just like smallpox and polio, measles would be eliminated from the United States for good.

Then a funny thing happened in 1998. Dr. Andrew Wakefield - a British former surgeon and medical researcher - authored a paper linking the combination measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to the rising numbers of autism cases. This obviously was a concern for parents everywhere, as they had to now weigh the possibility of choosing between contracting a potentially deadly disease and a possibility of causing a developmental disorder for their children.

Once this news hit the media, parents whose children had been diagnosed with autism began an outcry, wanting to hold the pharmaceutical companies responsible for the rising number of autism cases. More questioned the wisdom of giving so many vaccines to their children at such an early age, even though other vaccines, such as the ones for diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus and other illnesses were never linked in the study. Celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy, whose son was diagnosed with autism, picked up the cause.

Actress Jenny McCarthy speaking out about vaccination practices
Something interesting happened during the follow up to Dr. Wakefield's study. By 2004, not one single university or medical organization was able to duplicate his results. In 2010, the Lancet, the medical journal that initially published Wakefield's study, formally retracted the story.

The problem, however, is that in the Internet, where things are written forever, parents researching the safety of vaccines come across the retracted information, seeing it as current and up-to-date. Armed with this information, parents are questioning the wisdom of vaccinating their children. Since many of these parents themselves were born after 1963, they themselves have received the vaccine, and have never experienced a disease such as the measles personally. In fact, some even look to an episode of the late 1960s - early 1970s sitcom the Brady Bunch which shows an outbreak of measles in the home and point to the lack of serious medical complications as a reason to believe that the disease is nothing of concern.

This lax follow up of immunizations has recently led to a spike in the number of cases in recent years in the United States, and a recent outbreak in January tied to non-immunized visitors to Disney Land in California has already spread to 14 states.

These same people who choose to ignore the recommendations to vaccinate also can't remember smallpox in the United States - or even the world. That's because of an impressive, multi-national effort which successfully eradicated it in 1979. They also can't remember the iron lungs and leg braces that followed polio, another terrifying disease which in 1952 affected nearly 58,000 Americans, killing nearly 3,200 and leaving more than 21,000 with some level of paralysis. Indeed, the vaccination programs that have reduced the impact of these illnesses may be victims of their own success.

No one likes a shot, but the alternative is much worse
While it may seem easy to throw our hands up in frustration as public information officers, we still have a duty to communicate the importance of preparation - whether it is for severe weather, hazardous materials spills, earthquakes, fraud or communicable diseases. That's why we have to show the evidence that vaccines are safe, and that they can prevent at a minimum a tremendous amount of suffering or at worst death for family members.  Some resources that may be worth checking out include:

Remember, when misinformation is out in the public realm, bad decisions are made. Good information can save lives.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

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