Dr. Richard Feldman: Appreciate the miracle of vaccinations

Richard Feldman

In the throes of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, it seemed like most everyone eagerly awaited the development and approval of a vaccine that would end the nightmare.

The miracle happened with the creation of a highly efficacious and safe vaccine in record time. I hoped that finally there would be a renewed appreciation for immunizations. But for the 40% of eligible Americans who remain unvaccinated for COVID-19, attitudes didn’t largely change.

I’m astonished with the widespread vaccine resistance and misguided beliefs present in the midst of rampant COVID hospitalizations and deaths. The outrageous disinformation from anti-vaccine activists and conspiracy theorists, the strange politicization of COVID vaccines (and masking), the unconscionable behavior of some politicians, the distrust of public health experts and the lack of concern for the common good are truly incredible.

The seriousness of this pandemic leaves no question about the need for immunization.

The development of vaccines was one of the greatest miracles in medical history. They changed the world forever. No longer do young and healthy people — and to a large extent older and more vulnerable individuals — commonly die of acute vaccine-preventable infections that are rare or nonexistent today.

Let’s take a look at America today without immunizations. I calculated the following general estimates utilizing available public health data documenting the prevalence of various diseases before the development of their respective vaccines and adjusted for population growth.

Without immunizations, each year in the U.S. there would be:

–3,900 cases of tetanus. There are now only about 30 cases.

–353,000 cases of mumps. There were 142 cases reported in 2020.

–374,000 cases of hepatitis B. There are now about 3,000 cases.

–618,000 cases of diphtheria and 3,500 deaths. Diphtheria has been virtually eliminated in the U.S. In 2020, there were three cases and two deaths reported.

–437,000 cases of reported pertussis (whooping cough). About 18,000 cases were reported in 2019.

–33,000 cases of paralytic polio. Polio is virtually nonexistent in the Western Hemisphere. Since 1979, there have been no cases of polio originating in the U.S.

–77,000 cases of rubella. There are now less than 10 cases. Before the rubella vaccine, infants were born with congenital rubella syndrome resulting in blindness, deafness and intellectual handicaps.

–4 million cases of chickenpox and 11,000 hospitalizations. The vaccine was developed in 1995. Since then, chickenpox cases have decreased about 90%.

–851,000 cases of measles. Although some years have more cases from outbreaks in certain communities due to low immunization rates, in 2020 there were only 13 U.S. cases reported.

–20,000 cases of life-threatening invasive Hemophilus influenzae bacterial infection in children less than 5 years of age, mostly meningitis. There were only 14 cases in 2019.

–90,000 cases of smallpox. Because of vaccination, smallpox was completely eradicated from the world in 1977.

The implications of the above are obvious for the current COVID crisis. It’s tragic that thousands of people are dying unnecessarily from our newest vaccine-preventable disease.

The COVID crisis will continue with new more virulent variants until we achieve “herd immunity” with 85-90% immunization rates. Normalcy will not return until then.

Vaccinations in America saved millions of lives over the past century. Appreciate the miracle of vaccinations by remembering the devastating diseases they prevent.

Unvaccinated? Act intelligently and rationally. Get a COVID vaccine to protect yourself, your family and your community.

Dr. Richard Feldman is a family physician, author, lecturer and former Indiana State Department of Health commissioner for Gov. Frank O’Bannon.