For the first time in decades, a case of tetanus has reared its head, landing a six-year-old US boy in hospital. According to news reports, he had a 40.5 degree fever and muscle spasms so severe he was struggling to breathe and couldn’t talk or open his mouth.
The case, which put the unvaccinated boy in hospital for two months at a cost of over $AU1 million, highlights the importance of high rates of vaccination.
The importance of immunisation
Immunisation has been shown many times over to be the most cost-effective public health tool we have at our disposal, says Australian orthopaedic surgeon, Mr John Cunningham, OAM.
He explains that immunisation protects against infectious diseases by letting the immune system know not to let some viruses in under any circumstances.
He likens the immune system’s job to that of a bouncer. “The bouncer knows to keep many people out because they cause trouble, rather than letting them in again and again and then having to drag them out of the venue for disruptive behaviour,” he says. “In the same way, a vaccine tells the immune system to keep these diseases out, rather than let them in and see what they do.”
Immunisation saves lives
Mr Cunningham notes the diseases immunisation protects against are deadly, and, if they don’t kill, may leave a person suffering lifelong consequences. “Measles can render people intellectually disabled, and can cause death many years after the infection. Mumps can render people sterile. Rubella causes malformations in pregnancy. Why would anyone want them back?” he asks.
“Many people have been lulled into thinking that these diseases have gone forever. Unfortunately, apart from smallpox, they are very much still around. There’s a worldwide measles outbreak at the moment, largely centred around groups of people with low immunity, most often because of their refusal to be immunised.”
The value of ‘herd immunity’
Mr Cunningham explains immunisation protects you, and the people around you – like infants and young children – people whose immune systems are compromised by disease or ill-health, and some who remain vulnerable despite having their ‘shots’.
“These are all the people whom we protect by keeping our immunity up-to-date, and making sure that our community can provide the safety blanket of immunity that doesn’t let diseases ‘take hold’,” he says.
“If you’re around newborns, it would be a good idea to get a pertussis (whooping cough) vaccination as this often harms newborns, and sometimes even kills them,” he says.
You can get your immunity status for many diseases checked with a simple blood test.
What about the anti-vaxxers?
Some people prey on the fears of young parents by spreading false information about immunisation – information that has been disproven countless times, Mr Cunningham says.
“There has been more than enough studies and more than enough money spent on investigating the safety of immunisations now to say conclusively that they are not linked to any of the common problems that they are accused of.
“They are certainly a medical intervention, and one with incredibly small risks, yet those risks are far, far less than the risks of not being immunised. Be wary of the people who try to sell you fear and misinformation,” he says. “If they are telling you things that are shocking and make you suspicious of standard medical practice, and especially if it involves some large scale global conspiracy, take it with a grain of salt, or better yet, turn around and walk away.”