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Vaccines: safe, effective and necessary for a healthy community

It’s August, and school will soon be starting again. Lots of kids coming back to lots of classrooms, carrying books, paper and pen to school, and carrying sniffles and coughs back home. 

As a parent, you know that when it comes to sickness, kids share generously. 

If your children have been in school before, you also know that in a few months, “exclusion day” will come around, and if your children don’t have their vaccinations up to date, they’ll be excluded from school until they do. 

Many of us remember when childhood illnesses were a fact of life for most kids. Measles, chicken pox, mumps, whooping cough and a whole gamut of nasty sicknesses could keep both child and parent home from school and work. 

Since safe, effective vaccines for these illnesses became available in the early 1970s, these illnesses have nearly disappeared. In fact, they are so rare now that most doctors, nurses and parents have never seen them. Like most states, Oregon requires children attending school to show proof that their vaccinations are up to date. However, some parents still choose not to vaccinate their children, often because of concerns that the vaccines may be harmful.  

That’s not a good idea, says Carl Stevens, MD, a CareOregon Medical Director. “Sending your child to school without all the recommended vaccinations puts both the child and all the other kids at risk of getting sick. And some of these illnesses are serious enough to put a child in the hospital.” 

Here’s what can happen if we ease up on vaccinations. In 1994, Japan’s vaccination campaign against pertussis (whooping cough) had reduced the disease to only 393 reported cases. Because of the success of the campaign, many people thought that the vaccine wasn’t needed any more. Others believed that the vaccine itself was dangerous. Just a few years later, vaccination had dropped way off, the country had 13,000 cases of whooping cough, and 41 children died. 

It can happen here. Last winter, the biggest rash of measles cases in years occurred nationwide. The first big center for the disease: Clark County, in the Portland metropolitan area. There were 81 confirmed cases of measles in Washington, and 800 children were kept home from school to control the outbreak. 

“As long as these preventable diseases occur anywhere in the world, we should be sure to vaccinate all of our children,” says Dr. Stevens. “It only takes one international traveler who arrives in the U.S infected — and a population with even a few kids and adults who aren’t vaccinated — to set off an outbreak here. That’s what happened in Clark County.” 

In fact, this year the World Health Organization listed “vaccine hesitancy” — the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines — among the top 10 threats to world health. 

Some folks have developed the belief that because they may have had a flu shot and got influenza anyway, vaccinations don’t work, and you shouldn’t have to get them. 

But even in the years when flu shots are not as effective as they could be, the vaccination reduces the length of time it takes for someone to recover. And the vaccination also protects others who, because of their age or medical condition or allergy, cannot get immunized. If a large enough percentage of the population is immunized — the numbers vary from 83 to 94 percent, depending on the disease — the disease won’t spread to those who cannot have the vaccine. 

“It really is important to keep up with your child’s immunization schedule,” Dr. Stevens says. “You’re not only protecting that child, but you’re also protecting your baby, your grandmother and the child next door with cancer who can’t receive the vaccine, but could die from the infection.”