Vaccination: The bad old days


Have you ever met anyone who had diphtheria? How about tetanus? You may know an older person who had polio as a child, and most people my age can remember measles and mumps, but how about congenital rubella? Hemophilus influenza meningitis? Smallpox?

As vaccines become more effective, and global vaccine campaigns more successful, fewer and fewer people (let alone their doctors) have any direct experience with the infections we vaccinate against.

That’s why vaccine-preventable infections can be a low priority for some young parents: They’ve never seen any of them. As one dad put it not long ago, when we got onto the subject of polio risks for his two month old daughter: “What’s the point of  getting shots for non-existent diseases? It’s like you’re warning us about the dangers of buggy whips.”

That’s how my days go, sometimes…

I really like the illustration that accompanies this post (and thanks to my daughter Claire for sending it to me). The left hand column of red-tinged syringes shows how many cases of a given infection occurred each year in the pre-vaccine era. The mostly red-free column on the right lists the annual totals we see today.

The differences are dramatic, but it’s important to take note of the little slivers of red still visible next to infections like measles, mumps, and congenital rubella. These diseases and the others on the list aren’t extinct, they’re just held at bay by vaccines (and other public health improvements like clean drinking water and improved hygiene).

So keep this chart in mind when thinking about vaccinations for your child. Oh, and those bad old days? In the case of Hemophilus influenza, they weren’t so long ago: the vaccine didn’t come out until I’d been in practice for several years. I (and my patients) lived those 20,000 cases a year…


Filed under Infectious diseases, Vaccines

4 responses to “Vaccination: The bad old days

  1. anthonyvenable110

    I get that lots of diseases are much rarer than they were decades ago. But where are they coming from now? For instance congenital Rubella has listed as one person (confirmed) with the disease. Where did that person get it from? If a person is found with one of these diseases is their home inspected?


    • Hi Anthony,
      That’s a good question. The rare cases of congenital rubella in the U.S. are usually “imported”, meaning the woman contracted rubella in another country before arriving here. Here’s a link to the Centers for Disease Control’s discussion of congenital rubella. They discuss how they investigate cases there.

      Thanks for writing!
      Mark Sloan


      • anthonyvenable110

        Ok, interesting. I have heard of diseases being carried by people who enter the states, but it would seem like a good idea to screen for various illnesses before someone is allowed to travel. Especially to another country. That just seems to be common sense to me.


      • The speed of travel makes it difficult to completely screen out infectious diseases. Viruses like influenza are contagious for a day or so before a person even feels sick, so it’s possible to travel to another country while feeling well, then get sick once you’re already at your destination. That’s another reason why vaccinations are important. It’s hard for an infection to get established in an area where most of the inhabitants are immune to it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s