If you’ve ever browsed through old newspapers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, you can hardly fail to notice how commonplace it was for children to die of infectious diseases that are now considered preventable. I’ve seen stories in the West Central Tribune from the early 1900s that describe families losing two or three children to diphtheria within the span of just a few days.

It’s easy to forget this history. After all, kids no longer get sick – or sometimes die – from measles, polio, mumps or other diseases of childhood, because there are effective vaccines to prevent this. Many of the biggest gains in life expectancy in the 20th century were due to vaccination and the huge accompanying reduction in the number of children who died from preventable disease before they reached adulthood.

What has been happening in California in the past several months is a wake-up call, though, that many of these diseases remain a threat.

In case you missed the story, last year California experienced the worst outbreak of pertussis, or whooping cough, in half a century. By the end of the year, nearly 8,000 cases were confirmed and 10 infants had died. The outbreak led to a new state law requiring booster immunizations for children and adolescents, and prompted a fair amount of soul-searching over how so many young people could become sick with a preventable infectious disease.

Although it would be easy to blame it all on parents’ failure to vaccinate their children, the picture is more complicated than this. Many of the sickest, and most vulnerable, victims were less than 6 months old and therefore too young to safely receive the pertussis vaccine. Even when children are appropriately vaccinated, the protection tends to fade by adolescence or early adulthood unless a booster shot is administered. Many adults skip a pertussis booster altogether, possibly because they don’t know they need it or don’t realize they could transmit the pertussis-causing bacteria to a vulnerable infant.

All of these factors appear to have contributed to last year’s outbreak in California. Another contributing factor: the nature of the whooping cough bacteria, whose frequency tends to wax and wane in three- to five-year cycles.

If you want to know what it’s like to encounter whooping cough, this video from PKIDs gives you the straight story:

Although pertussis and other vaccine-preventable infectious diseases are certainly less common than they used to be, the fact that we don’t see them very often doesn’t mean they’ve been conquered. Microbes are smart creatures who are still very much with us. They’ve learned to adapt and survive. In fact, if I had to name one of the most serious and persistent health threats in the modern-day world, it would be the continuing presence of infectious disease.

If a mother from the early 1900s could travel forward in time and discover that diphtheria, measles and the other diseases that routinely ravaged her family, her friends and her neighbors could be prevented with simple, relatively inexpensive vaccination, how do you think she would react? It argues for contemporary parents to think carefully and have all the facts before they decide to opt out of immunization.

Image courtesy of the National Library of Medicine

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *