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Thursday, August 22, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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House Call: Vaccine benefits outweigh the miniscule risks

By Bob Riggs and Md For The Spokesman-Review

I often write about the safety and benefits of vaccines around the end of the summer because school is about to start and there are vaccine requirements for going to school.

In my last column, I referred to available vaccines against hepatitis and The Spokesman-Review recently ran a story about the new shingles vaccine. I was inspired to discuss vaccines for children and adults because there is a lot more protection available than there used to be. There are more than 23 different diseases for which vaccines are available. A few are very specialized and only recommended in certain situations or when traveling abroad.

Vaccines are available against adenovirus, anthrax, chickenpox, cholera, diphtheria, influenza, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, Japanese encephalitis, measles, mumps, polio, pneumococcal pneumonia, rabies, rotavirus, rubella, tetanus, typhoid, whooping cough (pertussis), human papillomavirus, meningococcal meningitis, shingles, smallpox, yellow fever and more.

Vaccines were developed because of the burden of suffering that these diseases can cause, which can range from blindness, sterility or paralysis to death. Here in the United States, our health care system is sometimes – but not always – capable of preventing such terrible outcomes, but often at an extremely high cost in suffering and dollars.

For example, in 2017 a 6-year-old boy who was not vaccinated got a cut while playing on a farm. He contracted tetanus and his parents took him to the hospital. During his stay, he had repeated painful muscle spasms and was on a ventilator for more than a month. He survived after 57 days in the hospital and at a cost of $800,000.

The recent measles outbreak in Clark County has cost just under $825,000. Seventy-two people got sick, and 52 of them were children younger than 10. Those kids got to experience a fever, cough, stuffy nose and an uncomfortable spotty rash all over as well as risking sharing measles with others. If you think that doesn’t sound that bad, all those kids were at risk of dying, with the kidsyounger than 5 the most at risk. Thank heavens none them died.

I could go on with examples, but I won’t. My point is that vaccines prevent disease, decrease suffering and bad outcomes. Severe vaccine reactions, while being uncomfortable and even a bit scary, are rare and do not usually lead to long-term problems like the diseases they are preventing. For example, only about 1 in 1 million kids has a severe allergic reaction to a single dose of vaccine.

What does that mean really?

A kid has a better chance, in his or her lifetime, of getting struck by lightning (1 in 12,000), making it onto the U.S. Olympics team (1 in 380,000) or being elected to the U.S. Congress (1 in 636,000). He or she even has a better chance of someday becoming a billionaire (1 in 766,000).

If you are worried about severe side effects from any kind of vaccine, aside from telling someone that they happen rarely, I suggest learning more about the disease the vaccine prevents, the short- and long-term problems the disease can cause and what modern medicine can and can’t do about those problems.

Bob Riggs is a family medicine physician practicing at Kaiser Permanente’s Riverfront Medical Center. His column appears biweekly in The Spokesman-Review.

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