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Vaccinations: Shots heard round the world

| Saturday, Sept. 1, 2012, 12:20 p.m.

The parents of a preschool-aged girl showed up Tuesday at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh with their achy, feverish child.

The family had just returned from a trip to India, where the little girl picked up influenza. She got sick on the plane ride home.

The girl had not been vaccinated against the flu because in the United States flu vaccinations don't start until fall. Through no fault of the family, she was exposed to the virus before she got her shot.

“All I could think of was, ‘Oh my goodness, we don't have a vaccine yet in our community and here we have a lovely family who is going to be bringing influenza into the community,' ” said Dr. Marian Michaels, the infectious disease specialist who treated the girl at a Children's clinic in Lawrenceville.

Luckily, a shipment of this year's flu vaccine arrived the next day. But Michaels, an expert in communicable diseases, said the case shows how easy it is to bring a potentially nasty disease into the United States. Better yet, it's a perfect example of the importance of vaccination.

It's not just flu vaccines that are crucial — it's also vaccines to ward off chicken pox, measles and even polio, the dreaded disease that paralyzed children half a century ago.

If you're exposed to polio in a country where it remains endemic, it's possible to bring the virus into the United States, where widespread outbreaks haven't occurred since the 1950s. The virus can travel in your GI tract, even if you're vaccinated, Michaels told me.

The polio vaccine — created in Pittsburgh by Dr. Jonas Salk — provides immunity but people can carry the virus and pass it to others, Michaels said.

Vaccine conspiracy theories emerge this time of year when kids head back to school and a few parents refuse to vaccinate children. A common argument is that childhood vaccines cause autism, even though scientists for years have told us there is no link between the two. The speculation is tied to an old, fraudulent British study.

The Institute of Medicine last year released a review of more than 1,000 studies and found no link between eight childhood vaccines and autism. Nevertheless, skeptics remain, pushing an anti-vaccination stance that comes with huge implications.

“When you make the decision to not vaccinate, you're making the decision for all your neighbors and all of the students in the school,” Michaels said.

This summer, Michaels said she treated three young siblings with whooping cough, a bacterial disease that roared back with the worst outbreaks in America in 50 years. The children's parents told doctors that inoculations ran counter to their personal beliefs. One kid ended up in the intensive care unit but survived.

“You just look at this parent and your heart just breaks,” Michaels said. “This is something we should have been able to prevent.”

Vaccines prevent contagious diseases. The more children without proper immunizations, the more they increase the risk of infection for themselves and others — especially those with compromised immune systems.

Misinformation opens the door to illnesses we haven't battled in years. That's just plain dangerous.

Luis Fábregas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7998 or lfabregas@tribweb.com.

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