By Dr. John Chunn and Dr. Jon E. Lutz

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I n 1774, Benjamin Jesty intentionally inoculated his wife and two sons with cowpox, successfully preventing them from contracting smallpox. Reviled by his neighbors, the rural English farmer disappeared into historical obscurity. Then, in 1796, Dr. Edward Jenner, repeated the same procedure on James Phipps, and became recognized as the father of immunization.

More than 200 years later, there remains much misinformation and misunderstanding about vaccines and vaccine preventable illnesses. And, it’s not a coincidence that the current measles epidemic and Oregon House Bill 3063 have been in the news.

Due to the success of immunization, some diseases are no longer perceived as a threat. Unfortunately, in spite of its proven success in controlling disease certain groups have questioned the utility of vaccination. In recent years, a number of websites providing unbalanced, misleading and alarming vaccine safety information have been established, which can lead to undue fears, particularly among parents and patients.

We, your Central Oregon infectious disease specialists, Drs. John Chunn, Laurie D’Avignon, Richard Fawcett, Jon Lutz, C. Rebecca Sherer and Victor Nwanguma, would like to offer you our perspective. We have seen hundreds of people die or be left permanently handicapped by vaccine preventable diseases ranging from influenza to meningitis. The great majority of lay persons have not had this experience, nor are they familiar with the severity of illnesses that these diseases can cause. We feel the routinely administered vaccines are very safe but do have potential side effects. For instance, several vaccines can result in fever, and fever in young children can result in febrile seizures. But, febrile seizures can largely be prevented by fever reducing medications. On the other hand, as an example, naturally acquired measles has a case fatality rate of about 2 in 10,000 and can be complicated by measles encephalitis (0.1%) which can be fatal or leave the child disabled, complicating bacterial pneumonia (5%) and certainly, febrile seizures.

Vaccines are very effective — and they’re the best protection against many serious diseases. Most people who get vaccinated will have immunity (protection) against the disease. It’s also important to note that when you get vaccinated, you’re protecting yourself, your loved ones and your community. This concept is called community immunity. Germs can travel quickly through a community and make a lot of people sick. If enough people get sick, it can lead to an outbreak. But when enough people are vaccinated against a certain disease, the germs can’t travel as easily from person to person — and the entire community is less likely to get the disease. Eventually, the disease becomes rare — and sometimes, it’s wiped out. And if a person does get sick, there’s less chance of an outbreak because it’s harder for the disease to spread. Community immunity protects everyone.

That means even people who can’t get vaccinated for medical reasons will have some protection from getting sick. And you will also protect others that are at increased risk for infection due to their underlying medical conditions — such as people with weakened or failing immune systems due to cancer, HIV/AIDS, Type 1 diabetes, or other health conditions. Community immunity is important for the very small group of people who don’t have a strong immune response from vaccines.

We would encourage the reader to have confidence in your Oregon public health authorities, in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics and your medical providers who work very hard to keep us all healthy. Have confidence in the results of decades of positive clinical research findings such as the eradication of smallpox and diphtheria through vaccination and the near eradication of Hemophilus influenza b, congenital rubella and polio through vaccination.

It is estimated that immunizations saved the lives of 300 million people in the 20th century, easily more than the 160 million killed in all of the wars of the same time period.

If you should have questions or concerns, please be sure to refer to your medical doctor for reliable and accurate information.

— Dr. John Chunn and Dr. Jon E. Lutz live in Bend.