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Making the case for vaccinations

Misery. That is all I could think when I walked into the hospital room and saw the 2-year-old boy screaming in his crib.

His bloodshot eyes hadn’t closed for hours. An endless stream of snot pooled under his nose and a sore throat muffled his defiant yell. His normally soft baby skin was masked by a bumpy, bright red rash that covered every inch of his little body.

The year was 1989 and as a doctor in training, I was seeing measles for the first time. Measles had grown so rare since the vaccine was developed in 1963 that I’d never before seen the suffering that follows infection.

This toddler felt hot through my gloved hands, yet he still shivered. He whimpered, with fear and sadness on his face. My biggest concern was his struggle to breathe, which I attributed to his 104-degree fever, the mucus filling his nose and mouth, and the virus down in his lungs.

To my dismay, even as he gradually improved, our hospital admitted multiple other children for measles complications. That’s when I understood why the virus has the dubious distinction as the most contagious human illness ever. Spread through touch, spray and air, an unvaccinated child entering a room two hours after someone with measles had been there could still catch the disease.

Each case admitted to our hospital that year was unique: some patients couldn’t breathe, some wouldn’t eat, others had fevers. But to a person, all were miserable.

In the years since, the effectiveness of the measles vaccine kept me from ever seeing so many cases together again. The vaccine not only protects those who receive the shot but many others: those too young or too sick to get shots, as well as those who choose not to be vaccinated.

Fortunately, the vast majority of Oregonians are immunized and keep their kids up to date on vaccines. The single measles case in Lane County in January 2015 did not infect anyone else, and other Oregon cases over the last several years spread only to unimmunized family members.

A vaccinated population helps individuals and families stay healthy, but it also helps neighborhoods, schools, churches, workplaces and the entire community. This is great news for infants too young to get the measles shot and those with weakened immune systems from diseases like cancer, lupus or HIV.

Press coverage of the Disneyland measles outbreak has focused on the small fraction of the nation’s children who’ve not been vaccinated and the reported conflict between groups of parents who do and do not vaccinate. I disagree that we are that far apart.

As a pediatrician and father of three school-age children, I’ve found all parents share certain values: we want to protect our kids while they grow. We care about nutritious food, safe streets, and strong schools. No one wants their child to suffer needlessly.

Parents also share a set of overlapping responsibilities. We want our children to be healthy, but we also need to stay healthy ourselves to support our kids. We need our communities to thrive so they can help us raise our kids. Vaccination against diseases that can spread and make others ill — that fits perfectly with parental values and responsibilities.

The measles vaccine was invented in the era of rotary dial phones, 25-cent-per-gallon gas and the Kennedy presidency. Despite much change, the vaccine remains safe, cheap and highly effective. The doubts raised about vaccines are discredited and the most famous perpetrators of the misinformation have been linked to self-enriching motives.

Today is a great time to make sure you and your children are up-to-date on vaccines. Young kids can get immunized at their medical homes and those over 11 can also get shots from many pharmacies. As a parent, I want my kids to be safe in school. As a neighbor and friend, I want your kids to avoid the misery of diseases like measles.

And as a doctor, I want my all patients to be safe — even those that cannot be vaccinated.

Dr. Paul Lewis is the Tri-County Health Officer for Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington Counties, and has been a practicing pediatrician for 28 years.

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