I have been a practicing primary care pediatrician at Mayo Clinic for 22 years. I have four children. All were infants once. All got their vaccines on time. All grew up to be the sort of children who on long car drives would ask one of the eternally recurring questions of childhood, "Are we there yet?"
As we celebrate National Infant Immunization Week, I suppose some might ask, "Are we there yet?" Given the higher than average pertussis (whooping cough) rates in Minnesota and measles outbreaks in the last two months in the Twin Cities, perhaps the older child in all of us would ask, "When will we get there?" When will we arrive where we need to be with routine infant and childhood vaccination?
The fact that vaccines have been so effective is not enough to get us there. I have witnessed first-hand the triumphs of vaccination over devastating diseases — diseases many of my younger colleagues and most of my patients' parents have never seen.
The fact that vaccines are so extraordinarily safe is not enough to get us there. I've studied and experienced first-hand the extraordinary safeness of routine infant and childhood vaccination. I have participated in intensive clinical studies that take place long before a vaccine ever makes it to FDA licensure and I've participated in the ongoing studies that take place after licensure to monitor vaccine safety.
Vaccines are as a group and individually the safest medications we have available in the prevention and treatment of childhood disease.
The fact that we have the vaccines available is not enough to get us there. From birth to age 11, we vaccinate against 16 major diseases. In the first year of life, an infant needs 21 to 22 doses of vaccine. While we are achieving rates closing in on 80 to 90 percent of children who are up to date on immunizations, we can never rest.
With 4 million infants born each year in the United States, we must ensure access to vaccines for every child. Not just my children, not just your children, but the children who play with and go to school with our children — all children.
Effectiveness, safety, and access are not enough either. Perhaps because of charisma combined with the Internet, anti-vaccinationists play a powerful role in creating a sense of unease, fear and even panic among our parents today.
Reciting data is not enough. Parents need to hear their community leaders and pediatricians speak out in support of vaccination and give them the courage to pursue timely vaccination of their infants and children. It is hard enough to be a parent today. We must not let propagandists make that even harder.
The Minnesota Vaccines for Children program permits family physicians and pediatricians like me to provide vaccines to those who cannot afford them. Our society cannot afford the harm involved of letting those less fortunate than ourselves suffer from the lack of vaccines. We celebrate today what we have achieved through this program and commit to sustaining the Minnesota Vaccines for Children program for the future.
As a community, we need to re-commit to combined efforts to spread the news of vaccines' effectiveness and safety, ensure access to vaccines, and fight complacency and propaganda. We may not be there yet, but our efforts are well worth the journey for each and every child.