Why Do We Still Need Vaccines?

Paul A. Offit, MD, explains why vaccines are still necessary even though vaccine-preventable diseases may not seem to be common.


Why do we still need vaccines?

Paul Offit, MD: Hi, my name’s Paul Offit. I’m talking to you today from the Vaccine Education Center here at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. You know, some parents can reasonably say, “Why do we still need vaccines? I don’t see these diseases anymore, they seem to be gone. Why not just eliminate vaccines? Why do I have to put my child through all these shots?” And I can understand the question. But here’s what I would say.

First of all, there are some diseases that are still occur fairly commonly in the United States, like chickenpox for example, or varicella, and pneumococcus. So, a choice not to get a vaccine is a choice to take a very real risk to get that kind of infection. We just recently had a child actually who had severe pneumococcal infection at our hospital because the parent had made the choice not to get the pneumococcal vaccine. That child had pneumococcal meningitis.

There are some viruses that sort of still roil below the surface, and still occur in the United States. Measles and mumps would be examples of that. So if we let our guard down and stop giving vaccines, and those diseases will start to come back, which is what’s happened.

I mean, as you know there was a measles outbreak this year, in 2015, that started in Southern California at Disneyland that sort of spread out to 20 other states. So that’s what happens for those diseases that are still sort of just below the surface.

There’s some disease that basically have been eliminated from the United States, like polio, that haven’t been eliminated from the world. There’s still three countries, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria for which polio has never been eliminated. There’s 20 other countries that occasionally experience polio because people travel from those countries to other countries where they then spread the virus.

So, do I think that the people who shed polio virus still walk into Los Angeles Airport or New York Airports? Yes, because only 1 in 200 people with polio actually are paralyzed by that. Most just, without symptoms, shed the virus. So, I think if we let our guard down fair enough, certainly polio could come back. So we can’t eliminate giving that vaccine until we’ve eliminated the virus from the face of the earth, which has been true, for example the smallpox vaccine. We stopped giving the smallpox vaccine because we eliminated smallpox from the face of this planet. But until that happens, it’s really hard, I think, to stop giving vaccines because children would still be at risk.

Thank you.

Related Centers and Programs: Vaccine Education Center

Last Reviewed on Aug 11, 2015