Most people in the United States probably don’t spend too much time thinking about vaccine-preventable illnesses (except maybe thinking back on that bad case of the flu that left you incapacitated for days or that brutal chicken pox you had as a kid). And that actually stands to reason. Because the vast majority of people in the United States are fully immunized according to the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), outbreaks of illnesses like the measles and pertussis are relatively uncommon. And thanks to widespread vaccination, certain diseases—like polio—have been eliminated in the United States, while infection rates of other illnesses have been reduced markedly, like those of diphtheria and chicken pox. In other words, as vaccinations have become available and widely used, rates of infection have declined.
But there are some people for whom vaccine-preventable illnesses are—and remain—top of mind. Anyone who can’t receive live vaccines and therefore relies on herd immunity to stay healthy is probably hyper aware of local measles outbreaks, for example. Parents of newborns who are too young to be vaccinated are typically on guard about who they let meet their new baby because of infections like whooping cough. Anyone who has a weakened immune system for any reason (this can include people with leukemia or HIV, or anyone being treated with certain medications) is also likely to be pretty aware of vaccine-preventable illnesses.
Health-care providers are another group on the front lines of dealing with vaccine-preventable illnesses. While it’s true that the vast majority of children receive all their vaccines, in 2017 a small but increasing proportion of children received no vaccines by age 24 months. Outbreaks of certain preventable and highly contagious diseases like measles and pertussis (whooping cough) are on the rise. For instance, 2019 saw the highest number of measles cases reported since 2000, when the CDC officially declared the disease eliminated—meaning that there hadn’t been any cases of continuous measles transmissions for 12 months.
No one knows this better than the doctors and nurses who treat patients for vaccine-preventable illnesses on a regular basis. Here, four of these medical providers talk about what it’s like and reveal the challenges these illnesses continue to pose to public health.
Although many people mistakenly believe that certain vaccine-preventable diseases are fairly benign, doctors are all too familiar with the potential serious consequences. The CDC estimates that the 2018 to 2019 flu season saw between 531,000 to 647,000 hospitalizations for influenza and as many as 61,200 deaths. One person with firsthand experience of just how sick these vaccine-preventable illnesses can make you is infectious disease specialist Allison Messina, M.D., chairman of the Division of Infectious Disease at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital.
“Purely by numbers, the most common vaccine-preventable disease that I see by far is influenza,” Dr. Messina told SELF. “We see a lot of kids that get flu who haven’t been vaccinated.” A study that compared vaccination records for 291 patients—aged six months to 17 years who died from the flu at some point between July 2010 through June 2014—against three larger cohorts found that getting the flu vaccine reduced children’s risk of death from influenza by 65 percent. “Now thankfully not all of those cases of the flu are life-threatening; but still they make the kids pretty sick,” she says.