December 7 – Who Flu There?

Today’s factismal: Just 2,500 Americans have had the flu thus far this season.

Every year, the influenza virus strikes (actually, a couple of them strike). And every year, millions of Americans and hundreds of millions of people elsewhere come down with it. Though most of the people who come down with the flu eventually recover, hundreds of thousands of people die every year. Thus far this year, we’ve been lucky; only about 2,500 people have come down with the flu.

So far, the flu has only hit a few places in the USA - but the season is early yet! (Image courtesy CDC)

So far, the flu has only hit a few places in the USA – but the season is early yet!
(Image courtesy CDC)

That is due in large part to the efforts of the CDC and other medical authorities; thanks to them, influenza is now the ninth most common cause of death instead of being the most common cause.  One reason that flu is less deadly now is because our medical care is better. Another reason is the introduction of annual vaccines; though sometimes they don’t quite match the flu strains that occur, they still reduce hospitalizations from the flu by nearly 70%.

Do the

Do the “Dracula sneeze”
(Image courtesy the University of Arizona)

What can you do other than get a flu vaccine? Doctors recommend three things: First, wash your hands a lot and practice “vampire sneezes”; that helps reduce the spread of germs and keeps the flu form infecting others. Second, get the flu vaccine; that helps keep you healthy even when someone else forgets to cover their sneeze. And third, report your flu on Flu Near You. They’ll track outbreaks and help us make certain that next year’s flu is even less of a problem than this year’s!
https://flunearyou.org/#/

October 7 – A Real Shot In The Arm

Today’s factismal: In 1900, influenza was the leading cause of death in the USA; thanks to vaccines, it is the ninth most common cause today.

Flu season officially started this week. Of course, there is never a week without someone, somewhere having the flu but this is the start of the long slow climb in cases that will peak sometime around January before dying back until next October. And doctors are doing their best to make that peak as small as possible by encouraging everyone to get a flu shot. (I just had mine. I’m having the side effect of a sore arm. I’m also having the side effect of not dying from the flu.) Sadly, this year, the nasal spray is not an option.

Behold the mighty syringe! (Image courtesy the CDC)

Behold the mighty syringe!
(Image courtesy the CDC)

Even if you had one last year, doctors urge you to get one this year, too. You need to do this because, just like the common cold, the flu is a family of viruses and not a single virus (like polio). The family of flu viruses is made up of rapidly changing variants that are identified by the proteins on the outside of the shell that holds the virus (that’s what the “H1” and “N1” mean). Because the virus itself changes from year-to-year, the vaccine that you had last year won’t work against this year’s strain any more than a polio vaccine will prevent the measles. And because we don’t know which virus will be the most common in any given year, all that the researchers can do is make a vaccine that protects against the most likely strains; because it provides some protection against all strains, it helps to lower the infection rate.

Gobs of the H1 influenza virus, all lumped together (Image courtesy CDC)

Gobs of the H1 influenza virus, all lumped together
(Image courtesy CDC)

The flu vaccine reduces the chances of getting the flu by nearly 70% (that is, if 100 people who took the vaccine would have gotten the flu then only 30 actually do). Even better, the vaccine reduces the length and severity of flu symptoms in those folks who do get sick. And that’s important because the flu acts as a “gateway infection”; people sick with the flu can develop bronchitis or pneumonia. (That’s happened to me twice.) And the deal gets even worse for folks with heart disease – the flu is known to make heart failure much more likely. Though this is most likely to happen for people who haven’t developed a good immune system yet (such as babies and toddlers) and for folks who have older and less active immune systems (like senior citizens). But in some cases (like the 1918 outbreak), the flu targets healthy people instead, which is why everyone should get the vaccine!

Do the "Dracula sneeze" (Image courtesy Arizona State University)

Do the “Dracula sneeze”
(Image courtesy Arizona State University)

OK, but what can you do other than get a flu vaccine? Doctors recommend three things: First, wash your hands a lot and practice “vampire sneezes”; that helps reduce the spread of germs and keeps the flu form infecting others. Second, get the flu vaccine; that helps keep you healthy even when someone else forgets to cover their sneeze. And third, report your flu on Flu Near You; that helps the doctors track the outbreak and send resources where they are needed.
https://flunearyou.org/

September 12 – One Small Pox

Today’s factismal: The last death due to smallpox happened thirty-eight years ago.

Normally, extinction is not something that we’d celebrate. It means that something is gone forever, taking its unique genetic signature with it. For animals such as the Carolina parakeet and the Western Black Rhinoceros, it is a tragedy. But for diseases such as smallpox and rinderpest, it is a cause for celebration. That’s because smallpox infected millions of people and killed two million each year; even if you were lucky enough to survive, you’d be marked forever by the disease with scars covering much of your body.

The smallpox virus (Image courtesy CDC)

The smallpox virus
(Image courtesy CDC)

Starting in 1950, a concerted effort was made to eradicate smallpox in South America. Vaccines were prepared and injected into people in every country on the continent. The success was so great that a world-wide initiative was proposed in 1958. Within a short time, smallpox was eliminated in North America (you can tell when an American was born by looking at their left shoulder; if they have a scar from the smallpox vaccination, they were born before 1965). By 1975, smallpox was only found in one small part of Africa. And two years later, it was gone from the wild.

Janet Parker, the last known victim of smallpox (Image courtesy Ben Gross)

Janet Parker, the last known victim of smallpox
(Image courtesy Ben Gross)

But it still lived in laboratories. And that’s where the last victim of smallpox caught it. In 1978, Janet Parker was a medical photographer documenting the work done at the University of Birmingham Medical School where she was accidentally exposed to the virus. Two weeks later, she became the last person that smallpox would claim. Ever since then, smallpox has been extinct except for two small samples kept in epidemiology labs in the US and Russia as a hedge against any future outbreaks.

When will the polio vaccine make scenes like this just a memory? (Image courtesy US NIH)

When will the polio vaccine make scenes like this just a memory?
(Image courtesy US NIH)

Now smallpox isn’t the only disease out there. And it isn’t the only one that we can conquer with education and vaccination.  Today there is a concerted effort to drive polio into extinction. This disease causes muscles to weaken and atrophy and bones to warp; in extreme cases, it can cause the diaphragm to weaken so much that the person suffocates. If you’d like to help drive this disease into extinction, then make certain that you and your family have had your vaccinations, and join the Global Polio Eradication Initiative:
http://www.polioeradication.org/

August 1 – A Real Shot In The Arm

Today’s factismal: August is National Immunization Awareness Month.

The smallpox virus (Image courtesy CDC)

The smallpox virus, former public enemy number one
(Image courtesy CDC)

If you want to be thankful for modern medicine, all you have to do is look at what used to kill us. In 1900, influenza was the leading cause of death in the USA (153,000 deaths or 202/100,000); today, it is the ninth most common (50,097 or 16/100,000). In 1964-1965, there were 20,000 babies born with congenital rubella syndrome in the USA; in the past ten years, there were none, thanks to vaccines. In 1916 in the US alone, there were more than 27,000 new cases of polio that paralyzed thousands and killed 6,000 people; in 2012 for the entire world, there were just 223 new cases of polio and no deaths or paralyzations. And then there is the best example for why we vaccinate – smallpox. In 1967, 2,000,000 people were killed each year by smallpox and countless others were left scarred or blind; today, nobody dies of smallpox thanks to an effective vaccination campaign.

Vaccines contain trivial amounts of antiseptics (Data courtesy CDC)

Vaccines contain trivial amounts of antiseptics
(Data courtesy CDC)

Unfortunately, a lot of people have forgotten how dangerous things used to be and are no longer vaccinating their children. They are worried by vaccine ingredients such as aluminum potassium sulfate (the stuff that makes pickles taste sour), agar (the stuff that makes toothpaste a paste), formaldehyde (made by your body as part of the energy cycle), and dihydrogen monoxide (water). Even though the ingredients are tested and known to be safe, scaremongering news stories have led many to stop vaccinating. And that’s a bad thing.

A simplified view of herd immunity

A simplified view of herd immunity

It is bad because vaccines do more than protect the people who take them; they also protect the people who can’t. People such as newborn infants (like the ones who were infected with measles by a missionary returning from overseas), people with compromised immune systems (such as children with cancer), and people for whom the vaccine never took (estimated to be about 5% of the population). By getting vaccinated, we create a “ring of immunity” that keeps the disease from spreading as quickly as it otherwise would (the Disneyland outbreak is a good example of herd immunity at work). And, of course, if enough people use the vaccine, then the disease is eradicated which means that we can stop using the vaccine!

A comparison of the deaths caused by measles and those caused by vaccines; the vaccine deaths were exaggerated for clarity. Each face represents 1,000 deaths.

A comparison of the deaths caused by measles and those caused by vaccines; the vaccine deaths were exaggerated for clarity. Each face represents 1,000 deaths.

Now it is true that vaccines are not perfectly safe. An estimated 10,000 people have died from vaccines. But it is also true that getting vaccinated is much, much, much safer than not doing so. Let’s take the flu for example. The flu vaccine reduces the chances of getting the flu by nearly 70% (that is, if 1,000,000 people who took the vaccine would have gotten the flu then only 300,000 actually do); experts estimate that the flu vaccine has saved at least 40,000 people’s lives. Similarly, the polio vaccine prevents two million cases each year which would kill nearly 500,000 people and leave another 750,000 paralyzed.

So what can you do for National Immunization Awareness Month? First, take care of yourself and your family by making sure that everyone’s vaccinations are up to date. Then take care of others by working with Global Vaccines. They are using their profits from vaccines in countries like the USA to pay for vaccinations in poor countries:
http://www.globalvaccines.org/

If you’d like to help drive a disease into extinction, then join the Global Polio Eradication Initiative:
http://www.polioeradication.org/

And remember that flu season is just around the corner. Flu vaccines are safe, effective, and free under most health plans!

 

May 14 – Controversy

Today’s factismal: Vaccines were invented 220 years ago.

In 1796, Edward Jenner performed a desperate experiment. A smallpox epidemic was sweeping through England and people were dying by the score. But he had heard that people who worked with cattle were less likely to become ill. Jenner investigated and discovered that the people who had come down with cowpox were less likely to become ill with smallpox. So Jenner came up with a radical idea. He would deliberately infect a child with cowpox and then, after the child had recovered, infect him with smallpox to test the effect of the first infection. The child’s parent, frightened by the number of deaths, agreed. The experiment was a success; the child lived and vaccines (named after the animal that provided the serum) became a way of saving lives.

The smallpox virus (Image courtesy CDC)

The smallpox virus, former public enemy number one
(Image courtesy CDC)

How many lives have vaccines saved? Consider this: Between 1900 and 1977, more than 400,000,000 people died from smallpox. Since then? Nobody has died from the disease thanks to an eradication effort featuring the smallpox vaccine.  And consider this: In the past sixteen years alone, the measles vaccine has saved 17,100,000 lives. And this: In just nine years, the flu vaccine has saved 40,000 lives in the US alone.

A ward full of polio patients (Image courtesy US NIH)

A ward full of polio patients
(Image courtesy US NIH)

So why wouldn’t anyone want to get vaccinated? There are a variety of reasons, but they all boil down to fear. Vaccines tend to have a lot of ingredients that sound scary until you know what they do. And false claims about some of those ingredients (mostly spread by a doctor who experimented on children without their parent’s consent) led many to think that vaccines might harm their children instead of keeping them safe. The truth is that there have been fewer than 1,000 deaths caused by vaccines in the past two decades even though the number vaccines used has risen steeply.

A comparison of the deaths caused by measles and those caused by vaccines; the vaccine deaths were exaggerated for clarity. Each face represents 1,000 deaths.

A comparison of the deaths caused by measles and those caused by vaccines; the vaccine deaths were exaggerated for clarity. Each face represents 1,000 deaths.

Think about that for a moment. There are now 36 recommended vaccines, up from 7 in 1950.  That means that there are now 36 different things that your child is protected against by vaccines. That means that instead of saving just 3,000,000 lives each year vaccines are now saving more than 15,000,000! And the CDC and pharmaceutical companies are constantly working to make vaccines even safer and more effective.

A child joins the "Rublla Fighter" campaign after being vaccinated (Image courtesy CDC)

A child joins the “Rublla Fighter” campaign after being vaccinated
(Image courtesy CDC)

So on the 220th anniversary of vaccines, take care of yourself and your family by making sure that everyone’s vaccinations are up to date. Then take care of others by working with Global Vaccines. They are using their profits from vaccines in countries like the USA to pay for vaccinations in poor countries:
http://www.globalvaccines.org/

If you’d like to help drive a disease into extinction, then join the Global Polio Eradication Initiative:
http://www.polioeradication.org/

August 26 – Cough, Cough

Today’s factismal: Fears of the DTaP vaccine in the 1970s and 1980s have led to the rise of vaccine-resistant whooping cough today.

This year’s Disneyland measles outbreak has shown what happens when a lot of people opt out of vaccinations; one infected person goes into an areas with a lot of unvaccinated people and before you know it, you have an outbreak. The same thing happened last year when an Amish missionary brought measles home to 383 people in Ohio. And it happened in 2013, when a Baptist missionary gave the disease to 25 members of his congregation in Texas. But there is a deeper story to the rise of this once-vanquished disease, and that can be discovered in whooping cough.

Whooping cough used to be an endemic disease; it was everywhere. Named for the “whoops” of air that victims would breathe in after prolonged coughing fits, whooping cough (or pertussis, as the medicos prefer to call it) is a bacterial disease that spreads through droplets sprayed out during the coughing. Pertussis patients would cough so hard that they would break ribs, lose bladder control, and even tear open the arteries in their neck! It wasn’t uncommon for a whooping cough victim to vomit or faint after a fit. And hard as it was on young children and the elderly, it was frequently fatal for infants; about 2% of all infants who came down with whooping cough died from the disease. That was some 1,000 children each year!

After the measles vaccine was introduced in 1963, measles cases dropped dramatically (Data from CDC)

After the measles vaccine was introduced in 1963, measles cases dropped dramatically
(Data from CDC)

Naturally, any disease that awful was researched pretty thoroughly. In 1906, doctors discovered the bacillus responsible for whooping cough. And in 1925, the first vaccine was used to control the disease. Soon the vaccine was being widely used and the number of pertussis cases was headed down after hitting a peak in 1931. In 1942, a more effective version of the vaccine was combined with vaccines to fight diphtheria and tetanus to create the first DTP vaccine. By1970, there were only 1,000 cases of the disease and it looked as if it might follow smallpox into obscurity. And then something awful happened. A few infants were reported to have suffered seizures after being injected with the vaccine. These isolated cases were widely reported on the evening news and a new syndrome was identified: pertussis vaccine encephalopathy.

Pertussis cases dropped after the vaccine was introduced in 1925 but have risen lately due to unvaccinated people (Data from CDC)

Pertussis cases dropped after the vaccine was introduced in 1925 but have risen lately due to unvaccinated people
(Data from CDC)

In response to the reports, many parents either spread out the DTaP schedules or stopped giving their children the vaccine altogether. Despite multiple follow-up investigations and numerous studies showing that the whole cell vaccine was safe to use, suspicion lingered on. A different form of the vaccine was created, one that used just fragments of the bacterium instead of the whole thing, but the damage was done; many people skipped the vaccine entirely. At first, the effect of the delays and opt-outs was subtle. Pertussis levels remained fairly steady through the late 1970s and 1980s. But then it started a slow and steady rise. The disease was coming back. Worse, thanks to the spacing out of the vaccinations, a new variant of the disease had arisen – one that the vaccine couldn’t target! And, to add insult to injury, it was found that the new version of the vaccine wasn’t as effective as the original and needed more frequent booster shots. As a result, the number of whooping cough cases in the US has risen from about 1,000 each year to 28,000 each year, with no sign of stopping. Barring a new, more effective vaccine that targets both types of the bacillus, the number of pertussis cases each year and the number of infants that die from it is just going to continue to rise.

Preventing measles, polio, pertussis, and a host of other diseases is just this simple (Image courtesy CDC)

Preventing measles, polio, pertussis, and a host of other diseases is just this simple
(Image courtesy CDC)

That may be where we are headed with measles. Thanks to the people opting out of vaccinations, outbreaks are getting larger and more common. And thanks to those who only take one of the required two doses, a more virulent form of measles will arise. Measles, like pertussis will become vaccine-resistant and children will start to die again.

What can you do? First, get all of your vaccines and keep them current by taking the booster shots. Once you’ve done that, then head over to the Measles and Rubella Initiative:
http://www.measlesrubellainitiative.org/

August 1 – Pokey Dokey

Today’s factismal: August is National Immunization Awareness Month.

The smallpox virus (Image courtesy CDC)

The smallpox virus, former public enemy number one
(Image courtesy CDC)

If you want to be thankful for modern medicine, all you have to do is look at what used to kill us. In 1900, influenza was the leading cause of death in the USA (153,000 deaths or 202/100,000); today, it is the ninth most common (50,097 or 16/100,000). In 1964-1965, there were 20,000 babies born with congenital rubella syndrome in the USA; in the past ten years, there were none, thanks to vaccines. In 1916 in the US alone, there were more than 27,000 new cases of polio that paralyzed thousands and killed 6,000 people; in 2012 for the entire world, there were just 223 new cases of polio and no deaths or paralyzations. And then there is the best example for why we vaccinate – smallpox. In 1967, 2,000,000 people were killed each year by smallpox and countless others were left scarred or blind; today, smallpox is but a memory thanks to an effective vaccination campaign.

Vaccines contain trivial amounts of antiseptics (Data courtesy CDC)

Vaccines contain trivial amounts of antiseptics
(Data courtesy CDC)

Unfortunately, a lot of people have forgotten how dangerous things used to be and are no longer vaccinating their children. They are worried by vaccine ingredients such as aluminum potassium sulfate (the stuff that makes pickles taste sour), agar  (the stuff that makes toothpaste a paste), formaldehyde (made by your body as part of the energy cycle), and dihydrogen monoxide (water). Even though the ingredients are tested and known to be safe, scaremongering news stories have led many to stop vaccinating. And that’s a bad thing.

A simplified view of herd immunity

A simplified view of herd immunity

It is bad because vaccines do more than protect the people who take them; they also protect the people who can’t. People such as newborn infants (like the ones who were infected with measles by a missionary returning from overseas), people with compromised immune systems (such as children with cancer), and people for whom the vaccine never took (estimated to be about 5% of the population). By getting vaccinated, we create a “ring of immunity” that keeps the disease from spreading as quickly as it otherwise would (the Disneyland outbreak is a good example of herd immunity at work).  And, of course, if enough people use the vaccine, then the disease is eradicated which means that we can stop using the vaccine!

A comparison of the deaths caused by measles and those caused by vaccines; the vaccine deaths were exaggerated for clarity. Each face represents 1,000 deaths.

A comparison of the deaths caused by measles and those caused by vaccines; the vaccine deaths were exaggerated for clarity. Each face represents 1,000 deaths.

Now it is true that vaccines are not perfectly safe. An estimated 10,000 people have died from vaccines. But what is true is that getting vaccinated is much, much, much safer than not doing so. The flu vaccine reduces the chances of getting the flu by nearly 70% (that is, if 1,000,000 people who took the vaccine would have gotten the flu then only 300,000 actually do); without the flu vaccine, there would have been more than 500,000 deaths from the flu in the US last year instead of the 50,000 that did. Without the polio vaccine, there would be two million cases each year, killing nearly half a million people and leaving another 750,000 paralyzed. With the vaccine, polio has been eradicated in all but three countries (Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria).

So what can you do for National Immunization Awareness Month? First, take care of yourself and your family by making sure that everyone’s vaccinations are up to date. Then take care of others by working with Global Vaccines. They are using their profits from vaccines in countries like the USA to pay for vaccinations in poor countries:
http://www.globalvaccines.org/

If you’d like to help drive a disease into extinction, then join the Global Polio Eradication Initiative:
http://www.polioeradication.org/

And remember that flu season is just around the corner. Flu vaccines are safe, effective, and free under most health plans!