There once was a time in the world where diseases ran wildly, crossing oceans and continents with great speed. Carried in animals and people alike, diseases and viruses that caused great sickness and sometimes death spread around the globe. The bubonic plague, or “Black Death,” spread from Asia to Europe in the mid-1300s by rats and fleas and caused the deaths of approximately 200 million people.
Symptoms were fierce and death came within a week for those who did not immediately recover from the disease. The plague sparked major cultural and economic changes in the areas it affected, including the popularity of personal hygiene and proper city waste disposal practices.
While there’s very little possibility that the world will see another “Black Death,” there are diseases left in the world that bring havoc to communities and people every year. They often bring the same pain and suffering and death. Over the years, most of these diseases have been hugely eradicated by the invention, production and distribution of vaccinations.
What diseases am I at risk for?
Diseases like measles, mumps, pertussis (whooping cough), meningitis, polio are diseases that have surged throughout populations in the past and have caused much suffering, but are now rare. In fact, most doctors practicing today have never seen a case of polio. Diseases such as this are largely erased in the world, as vaccinations for healthy individuals provide immunity for those who cannot be vaccinated (the very young, or people with autoimmune disorders).
Mumps symptoms include fever, headache, muscle aches, fatigue, loss of appetite and swollen and tender glands under the ears. Measles symptoms are similar, but include a cough and runny nose. Whooping cough is named for the sound of the severe hacking cough that people develop when infected with the disease. Polio has two types and in the worst cases, can lead to permanent nerve injury which can lead to full paralysis.
The cause of diseases like polio, measles and mumps, are caused by viruses. A virus is a very small particle that is capable of entering the body without notice and infecting a cell within the body, causing disease. Once viruses attach to their “host cell,” they multiple and reproduce rapidly, causing spread of the disease. Measles, a very contagious disease, spreads virus through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Mumps outbreaks occur primarily in close-contact settings, like schools, colleges and workplaces. Polio is a crippling and deadly infectious disease that can invade a person’s brain and spinal cord, causing paralysis.
Before and After Vaccines
Before the middle of the last century, diseases like these struck hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S., including infants, children and adults alike. Thousands died annually–nearly everyone in the United States developed measles. More than 15,000 Americans died from diphtheria in the early 1920s. An epidemic of rubella (a form of measles) in the mid-1960s infected 12 and a half million Americans and caused 11,000 miscarriages. These days, however, most doctors have never seen a case of measles, and only a handful of cases for diphtheria and rubella have been reported to the Centers for Disease Control since 2012.
The invention of vaccinations and their widespread use is what has caused this vast drop in infected patients. The United States now has one of the lowest rates of vaccine-preventable diseases in the world. Because of vaccines, one disease—smallpox—has been totally eliminated from the planet.
Vaccines have made us a healthier species. Unfortunately, throughout the last ten to fifteen years, a dangerous movement has gained ground in the United States. Some people believe that vaccinations aren’t necessary for good health, and that proponents of vaccines are doing a great damage to society by requiring vaccinations for entry into public spaces like schools and daycares. The followers of this movement believe that natural immune systems work just as well to stave off diseases, but they miss a few important points.
• Vaccines don’t just protect you. Most diseases are spread from person to person, so people living in communities or working in close proximity to others (most of us) may suffer from a disease and quickly pass it to multiple people even if no symptoms are present. If most people in a community are vaccinated, the disease has fewer opportunities to infect others.
• Outbreaks occur mostly in communities that are not well-vaccinated. In 2013, measles outbreaks struck New York and Texas, but only among groups with low vaccination rates.
• We can’t rest yet. While the United States has very low rates of vaccine-preventable diseases, they haven’t completely disappeared like smallpox has. Polio is close to being completely eliminated, but globally several cases still occur. Outbreaks of measles have reached almost half a million.
Only the fact that most Americans are vaccinated has prevented outbreaks from becoming epidemics. Most outbreaks that occur in the U.S. are from people who have traveled to another country, become infected with the disease without being aware of it, and traveling back to the U.S. and infecting others. According to the CDC, if we let ourselves become vulnerable by not vaccinating, an epidemic of an under control disease could be just a “plane ride away.”
If diseases are under control, why vaccinate?
Mixed messages from the media can be confusing. If so many diseases are on their way out, why should we bother vaccinating against diseases that no longer bother us?
It’s true that many diseases, like polio and diphtheria, are extremely rare in the U.S. This is because we have been methodically and consistently vaccinating against these diseases for a number of years. Immunizing ourselves and our children doesn’t just protect us and our families; it protects the entire country and the entire world. If we take away a vaccine and the protection it provides, more and more individuals will become infected, and spread disease to others.
If we stopped vaccinating, diseases that are unknown to most physicians would make a rapid comeback, and many people would become ill and even die. We vaccinate so that the diseases that plague us now can be a mere memory.
Disclaimer: The contents of this article, including text and images, are for informational purposes only and do not constitute a medical service. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health professional for medical advice, diagnosis, and treatment.