After 225 years, do we still have to talk about vaccines?

By Benjamin C. Aaker, MD
SDSMA President

Ouch! Last month, legislators discussed two bills that would have removed requirements for childhood vaccinations in our public schools. As before, proponents seek to slowly chip away at requirements that protect our children, with dubious arguments about vaccine safety. In an unprecedented year, where our country has lost half a million lives to a virus, it seems unfathomable that we would move to vaccinate fewer.

One of these proposed bills, which was fortunately killed in committee thanks to SDSMA’s and others’ action, sought to remove vaccination requirements for any child whose self, parents, or guardians are opposed to immunization because of a sincerely held religious or philosophical belief. Keep in mind that South Dakota already allows a religious exemption. The proposed bill would have changed current law to add a philosophical exemption, which exempts anyone opposed to getting vaccinated. This would make vaccinations optional. A second bill which was also killed in committee sought to ban schools and employers from requiring immunizations.

The SDSMA is supportive of people making their own informed decisions to the degree that these decisions don’t harm other people. At that point, we take issue and seek to help our patients. While the anti-vax bills were defeated in February, a larger battle continues.

The number is different for various viruses, but somewhere between 70 and 95 percent need to be immune before we achieve ‘herd immunity.’ Once we have that, it becomes easy to forget the tragedies experienced before vaccinations were brought into the picture.

Yesterday’s Virus
Remember measles? Long-term complications include brain damage, hearing loss, and immune suppression. When I was in medical school, I worked with a laboratory technician who had been afflicted by poliomyelitis at a young age. She was forced to use braces yet walked every day to do her work. She kept a great attitude but she would have certainly wanted the polio vaccine as a child.

In 1953, 35,000 children in the U.S. were infected with the poliovirus, many who would go on to have long-term complications. To combat the virus, many schools, churches, movie theaters, and other public places were closed. People tried to distance themselves from others. Those who became infected felt a flu-like illness, with headache, myalgias, and fever. A few (0.5 percent) suffered paralysis, and about a tenth of those died. Even though most recovered, no one knew who would be affected severely, so people tried what they could to slow the spread of infection. The fear of contagion led to panic and unusual solutions for theories such as spraying DDT in towns to kill the mosquitoes were incorrectly hypothesized to spread the virus.

Jonas Salk is credited with inventing the polio vaccine, and widespread vaccinations begun in 1955, resulting in a huge decrease in cases. People celebrated defeating this disease that caused fear only second to the fear of nuclear war. Polio was a distant memory by the public after 1979; since then the U.S. has had no known polio cases. Unfortunately, people do forget, and vaccines are essentially a victim of their own success.

Today’s Virus
Today, 90 percent of people in the U.S. are interested in receiving the coronavirus vaccine. They see the effects of the virus, and they want to protect themselves. I’m hopeful that they also want to protect others, but I don’t think we will have a change in public opinion by telling people how safe vaccines are. It will happen when we can make people remember how deadly viruses can be. We need people to remember what happened in the past. People need to think about and factor in the hundreds of thousands who have died of COVID-19 in this past year and compare that to the estimated 1,800 deaths per year from polio before the vaccine was introduced. How can we possibly treat this disease with any less urgency?

The SDSMA will continue to fight for the health of the people of South Dakota. Ouch! Getting a vaccine hurts a little, but it’s worth it for the lives saved, one of whom might be your own. Keep fighting for your patients.