We should hold those responsible for spreading false medical information accountable for their actions.
Rumors and falsities abound regarding immunizations. Many people refuse to vaccinate their children for untrue reasons, with perhaps the biggest unfounded concern being the risk of autism. Many people feel that vaccinations should be a choice and no one should be allowed to tell them what to do with their own children. But, the fact remains that if we want vaccines to be effective, we need herd immunity (or a general immunity of the entire population).
A big argument of the anti-vaxxers is that they are not harming anyone else by their ill-founded decisions. But, the reality of the need for herd immunity struck home with me a few weeks ago when I diagnosed a baby under 12 months old with varicella. This baby was not old enough to receive the varicella vaccination so depended on herd immunity to be protected. As an infant, he was at much greater risks of developing complications from this infection. He remained severely sick for over a week and lost weight because he was not eating. Thankfully, he recovered but why would anyone think it is alright for a baby to be this sick to develop a natural immunity? With a shot, we can provide immunity without the risk of the severe complications that varicella can cause, such as sepsis, dehydration, pneumonia, encephalitis, and others. Why do some think chickenpox parties are a good idea to provide their kids with natural immunity? Do these parents not understand they are placing their child at risk of these serious complications?
My patient thankfully did well without any complications but his mother did not choose for him to suffer from this infection. She fully intended to vaccinate him at the appropriate age but that choice was taken away from her. Rather than being able to give him the vaccine she had wanted to, she was forced to watch him suffer from the ravages of this disease.
But, a further disaster was potentially averted in my office from this baby infected with varicella. At the same time he had an appointment, a pregnant women sat in the waiting room at the same time he was there. She was thus exposed to varicella, which is a known teratogen and can cause severe birth defects. She did not have any choice in this exposure. Luckily, she had received the varicella vaccine at an earlier age and was thus protected. If she was non-immune, she would likely spend the rest of her pregnancy wondering if her baby would be born with a birth defect.
When we vaccinate people, we are not just looking to protect that individual but rather the whole population. There are people who are unable to be vaccinated due to medical factors such as being immune-compromised from certain cancers or medical treatments as well as characteristics such as age and pregnancy status. If people refuse vaccines, they are placing these other people at risk as well as themselves.
While I understand that there are certain religious exemptions to vaccinations and this should be respected, many refuse just based on false understandings. We should hold those responsible for spreading false medical information accountable for their actions. Until they are, many will continue to refuse vaccines and the unprotected will continue to be endangered. Isn’t it time we push herd immunity to the forefront?
Dr. Linda Girgis MD, FAAFP, is a family physician in South River, New Jersey. She holds board certification from the American Board of Family Medicine and is affiliated with St. Peter’s University Hospital and Raritan Bay Hospital. Dr. Girgis earned her medical degree from St. George’s University School of Medicine. She completed her internship and residency at Sacred Heart Hospital, through Temple University and she was recognized as intern of the year. Over the course of her practice, Dr. Girgis has continued to earn awards and recognition from her peers and a variety of industry bodies, including: Patients’ Choice Award, 2011-2012, Compassionate Doctor Recognition, 2011-2012. Dr. Girgis’ primary goal as a physician remains ensuring that each of her patients receives the highest available standard of medical care.