As a child, I never liked doctors. The very smell of the doctor's office (disinfectants and benzoin) made me uneasy. I discovered the reason during the first weeks of my pediatrics rotation as a medical student. Shortly after seeing the doctor, happy, cooing babies were instantly turned into wailing, screaming banshees by the ritual of childhood vaccination. The realization dawned--they had done this to me.
Amidst the recent vaccine controversy, many ask why any caring, intelligent mother would subject her beloved child to this terrible torture? The answer is because it may save their child's life, or spare them infinitely worse pain and suffering. One need only go back to the first half of the 20th century to understand the devastating effects of polio, rubella or diphtheria. Yet today we are largely unfamiliar with these diseases--thanks to vaccination.
Initially devised by Dr. Edward Jenner in the 18th century to combat lethal epidemics of smallpox, injection with a weaker related virus, know as "cow pox"? (hence the name vaccination from the Latin "vacca"? or cow) was found to be significantly protective against the disease.
This strategy has grown notably in the 20th century into the largest effective preventive health program since the removal of sewage from public water supplies.
We now take for granted the absence of such formerly ubiquitous diseases as chicken pox, measles, mumps, and rubella, as well as more determined killers like tetanus, diphtheria, and smallpox. So much so that there is a significant backlash against the strategy of vaccination itself that threatens to once again bring these diseases to popular attention.
So is vaccination safe? Can it cause autism or even the diseases it is supposed to prevent? The short answer is that it unequivocally does NOT cause autism, and it is safer, by a large margin, to be vaccinated than not.
During the current vaccine controversy, it is important to remember that there are potential risks with every medication or medical procedure. There are risks to getting out of bed in the morning (and there are risks to staying there). The preponderance of scientific evidence indicates that vaccination for the diseases commonly recommended is way safer than not getting vaccinated.
What should you do for yourself, your family, and your children? My advice is pro-actively seek out vaccination whenever it is medically indicated and recommended by your doctor or public health authorities. This applies to childhood vaccinations, tetanus (now tdap) shots every 10 years for adults, flu shots annually, and the pneumonia and meningococcal vaccines when indicated. You and your family will have a better chance to lead longer, safer lives by doing so.
Mark L. Friedman MD FACEP FACP is an emergency physician working to revolutionize the delivery of health care.