After a debate in Florida for Republican presidential candidates in which the issue of vaccination came up Michele Bachmann alleged that the HPV vaccine could cause mental retardation
The Guardian, a British newspaper, reported in September 2011 that Bachmann appears to have made a serious mistake by what she said and then quotes what she told NBC television: "I will tell you that I had a mother last night come up to me here in Tampa, Fla., after the debate. She told me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter. It can have very dangerous side effects"
There was another problem with Bachmann's statement in that she misquoted or misunderstood the woman. That woman, who is an ardent Tea Party member, is the sister-in-law to one of my sons. Her daughter had been given the HPV vaccine and subsequently developed severe epilepsy, which the mother attributed to the vaccine. That was the information she gave to Bachmann.
Actually it is unlikely, probably very unlikely, that it was the vaccine that caused the epilepsy.
In the most recent Family Practice News it mentions that a generation gap separates physicians' vaccine views. It goes on to say that newly minted physicians appear to have less faith in the efficacy and safety of vaccinations than do their older colleagues. It is thought this is due in part that they have not had to deal with some of the diseases that vaccines can prevent.
Unfortunately there is a small number of doctors and some other folks primarily in alternative medicine who think vaccines are unsafe and should rarely be given.
A significant boost to that idea came when the Lancet, a British medical magazine, published the 1998 study by Dr. Andrew Wakefield in which he described a link between vaccines and autism.
In January 2010 CNN reported that the British Medical Journal had concluded that Wakefield misrepresented or altered the medical histories of the patients he studied. Because of that in May of last year Wakefield was stripped of his medical license in Great Britain.
Now for some of what I consider fascinating history about immunizations.
The first breakthrough with immunizations was by Edward Jenner in 1796 when he discovered that smallpox could be prevented by vaccinating patients with material from cowpox lesions. In 1885 Louis Pasteur successfully developed a vaccine against rabies
Since then smallpox has been eliminated from the globe. Polio is almost unknown. A typhoid vaccine came out in 1897 and made a significant difference, especially in troops at war.
Tetanus antitoxin greatly reduced war casualties when it was introduced in World War I and it is very rare to see a case of tetanus in civilized countries today.
In the late 1930s diphtheria toxoid was given by mass immunization to children in the U.S. and Canada and in the early 1940s in England and Wales. In the latter two countries the number of deaths fell from an annual average of 1,830 in 1940-1944 to zero in 1969.
In the spring of 1963 when the measles vaccine came out I had each of my children vaccinated. The measles, also known as rubeola, was a miserable disease for children and also for doctors. Small children could run high fever for two or three days and anxious parents would, in some cases, want antibiotics to be started when it would not have been appropriate.
Prior to my going to the small mission hospital in Monument Valley, Utah, in 1983 I had never seen in 30 years of practice a case of bacterial meningitis. But while there I saw a number of cases and had at least one death from it.
It was during my first few years at the Shiprock Indian Health Service hospital that the HIB vaccine came out. After that we virtually stopped seeing meningitis.
I estimate that in nearly 54 years of medical practice I have had somewhere between 150,000 and 250,00 patient visits. I ordered immunizations for patients of all ages and am sure that most of the other patients I saw had at one time or another had at least one immunization. I cannot recall seeing any of those patients who had a serious illness as a result of an immunization with the possible exception of one case of a rare disease, Guillain-Barre, which can have several causes among them the flu shot.
When one considers the millions of serious illnesses, disabilities, and deaths that have been prevented over the past 215 years by immunizations and the rare serious problems from immunizations one should be very thankful for them. A person has a far greater chance of getting hurt while riding in an automobile than having a serious illness from being immunized.
But for a parent who has a concern about having his/her child vaccinated or for anyone else who is worried about this issue the best thing to do is discuss it with your health-care provider.
Dr. Don Casebolt of College Place is a retired physician who is passionate about preventive medicine.