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 is Paul Offit. I’m talking to you today from the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
I think one question parents reasonably ask is, “Why do I still need a vaccine?” “Do I still need a polio vaccine? I mean, whenever I look at pictures of polio, they’re all in black and white.” “Do I still need a diphtheria vaccine? I mean these diseases are either gone or virtually gone from this country. Why do I still need to be vaccinated?”
So, there's I think a few reasons you need to be vaccinated. One is some of these diseases are still common. The whooping cough still can cause tens of thousands of cases every year in the United States. Influenza is still a common disease in the United States and in the world. Pneumococcus is still, you know, fairly common; there are still hundreds or thousands of cases of pneumococcal infection in children. So, that’s one reason, because some of these diseases are still common, and a choice not to get a vaccine is a very real risk to get that infection.
Some diseases are less common, but still here. Diseases like Haemophilus influenzae type b or meningococcus, those are relatively uncommon diseases, but they’re there and they can be devastating. Both of those particular bacteria can cause a blood stream infection called sepsis; they can cause pneumonia; they can cause meningitis, which is inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord. So, those are severe diseases and they’re still out there, not as common as say whooping cough, but still common enough that you want to make sure you don’t put yourself at risk.
The third group are bacteria or viruses that are either extremely rare or gone. I mean, we haven’t had a case of polio in this country since the 1970s, but the fact is that polio still exists in the world — Nigeria, Afghanistan, to a lesser extent, Pakistan — you can still see polio. So, international travel is common; I mean, do I think that it’s possible that people who are excreting polio virus in their stools walk into LAX, Los Angeles airport, or LaGuardia in New York? Yes, I think that’s possible. And if we let our guard down, if immunization rates against polio drop low enough, there’s no reason polio couldn’t come back in this country, same thing’s true of diphtheria. When the Soviet Union was dissolving, there were massive outbreaks of diphtheria involving 50,000 people and many deaths associated with diphtheria because their immunization rates dramatically dropped. So, although some of these diseases are rare or gone at some level in this country, they still exist in the world; international travel is common, so we need to make sure they get them. The only virus which is now been eliminated from the face of the earth for which we now no longer need to get a vaccine is smallpox. Smallpox has been eliminated from the face of the earth. We stopped giving that vaccine to children by the early 1970s. But for the other diseases, we still need to protect ourselves against them.
Related Centers and Programs: Vaccine Education Center
Last Reviewed on Mar 26, 2020