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December 31, 2014 at 9:28 PMComments: 1 Faves: 0

A New Look At Immunizations

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

Immunizations are a hot topic these days. People are seemingly entrenched on  their respective side of this issue.  While most are wholeheartedly supportive of the need for sweeping vaccine programs and disease prevention, a substantial group of people concerned about the safety of vaccines are supportive of the right to refuse vaccinations. Some people are caught, not exactly sure what to believe. 

Pockets of vaccine-preventable illness are popping up, putting not only unvaccinated persons, but others at risk and igniting the intensity of the debate. Truth be told, I support vaccines as a physician and scientist who has reviewed risks and benefits. I have seen first-hand, the consequences of vaccination and the ravages of preventable illness. While in the U.S. these observances are rare, they do exist. In India where vaccination is much more sparse, I have witnessed far more substantial effects.

This disparity between India and our land of comfort where vaccine-preventable illnesses are out of sight, out of mind, and seemingly inconceivable has got me thinking that by somehow making such illness tangible, their validity and prevention might be seen in a different light.  With their gracious permission, I have talked with four of my patients who were personally touched by illnesses preventable by vaccines. It is my hope that their stories makes this issue more tangible.


It was a typical Thursday night in August as Jack anticipated his coming sixth grade school year.  He and his family went to a get-together with friends and Jack remembers not having his usual energy to play with the rest of the kids. He woke up the next day and had trouble eating and drinking. He alerted his mother that he couldn't swallow as milk bubbled out of his nose.  From that moment, his life changed.

Via phone, their family doctor urged his mother to bring Jack to the local hospital. This would be his home for the next three months. Sixth grade was put on hold. One of the months of hospitalization was spent on the "iron lung" which kept him alive by assisting his breathing.  Jack remembers as he contemplated how he was "that kid" in his neighborhood stricken with polio, "I laid on my back with this big iron thing. I had a mirror so I could see people."

Jack walked out of the hospital where many did not those days.  But polio left its scars on his breathing and strength.  He went on to play 3rd base on a baseball team and told me that at that age he didn't look at it philosophically. Still, he thinks often about how he developed polio one year before a vaccine  preventing he illness was developed. That "has stuck with me my whole life," he told me.


Barb was the baby of the family. At the age of 15 months in 1954, her brother noticed that she was not walking as well as she had previously. Her parents were devastated with the diagnosis of polio in their small child.  Barb beat the odds and went on to walk, albeit with a limp.  Barb remembers her dad visiting her bed every night and helping her exercise the weakened muscles in her leg.  She remembers that her parents caused her to look at what she could do and Barb kept right on walking.  One walk she remembers was the blocks that her mom marched she and her siblings to their school to get their vaccines.  They were not to miss out on the opportunity to prevent such devastating illnesses.  The polio vaccine was developed soon after Barb's bout with the disease.  When asked about vaccines, Barb replied, "How could you not?"  She has seen the progress first-hand.


Phil was two and a half in 1943.  While the U.S. fought a war in the South Pacific and mounted to fight in Europe, his little body fought polio.  His family was well aware of the effects infectious illness brought.  His father had lost his mother and brother in an influenza epidemic.  His mother had lost two siblings.

Phil's parents were allowed to visit their boy every other week, but were discouraged from touching him for fear of contagion.  This went on for six months, one sixth of his three years of life. He was better off than his cousin who, despite support from an iron lung, died young. Still, though he overcame polio, there were scars. Phil was never able to do many things, relaying how badly he "wanted for once to run around the bases after hitting a baseball."

With his faith and his art, he shucked the label of "cripple" and overcame his disability. Where physical abilities waned, artistic skills flourished as I have seen in Phil's amazing paintings. Still, Phil tells me that he has a first-hand realization of what a disease can do to you.  He also, in-turn, realizes the power of a vaccine.  While realizing that everybody makes choices, he feels that shucking a vaccine is like Russian Roulette.  He wonders, "Why would you take a chance?"


"I remember everything about that moment," Brylinn's mother Brandi told me. "I was watching Storm Chasers on TV." She remembers vividly the color of her clothes and also the color of her recently born baby. She was blue and struggling to breathe. 

Brylinn was rushed to the hospital and placed on ventilator support.  Brandi's baby was relying on the machine to keep her alive. Testing revealed that she had pertussis, otherwise known as "whooping cough." It was touch and go.  

As a consequence of the Pertussis, Brylinn developed the complication of pneumonia.  Though her baby's little body did heal and she left the hospital after a matter of days,  "I had nightmares for two years," Brandi told me.  Regarding immunizations, Brylinn's mother Brandi told me that, "You never know what's going to happen. It can be a big deal."

As a physician, I see the faces affected by illnesses that are now preventable.  Sure, nothing is perfect, and there are some minor complications with immunizations.  Contrarians promote pseudo-science with like-scary associations to autism that have all been disproven.  Yet the scary beast of these illnesses seems down-played.  I fear that when the memories of polio fade, the façade of the down-played potential of such illnesses will gain even more weight.  And so, for my patients, and their stories, I am grateful.

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