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UNPROTECTED PEOPLE: Stories of
people who have suffered or died from vaccine-preventable diseases
INFECTION CONTROL NURSE URGES PARENTS TO
SUPPORT U.S. VACCINE PROGRAM
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I am an infection control nurse practicing at Vanderbilt
University Medical Center. In the United States we enjoy freedom from many vaccine-preventable
diseases that killed or caused severe morbidity at the beginning of this century.
Most people view these vaccine-preventable diseases as curiosities, as exceptions to the rule. Yet these diseases
have not been defeated, and in my job I see firsthand what happens when parents do not vaccinate their children.
At Vanderbilt, we continue to see these diseases; particularly in immigrant groups who are sometimes not
immunized by U.S. standards, and within certain religious groups that refuse vaccination. Lately, parent-inspired
groups are encouraging other parents to opt out of the traditional vaccine regimen.
These groups use the Internet to promote scare tactics and misinformation. As a result,
I have recently seen more cases of childhood preventable diseases in my daily practice.
I have watched helplessly as infants with pertussis turn blue after an agonizing
coughing spell. These children get a wild, frightened look in their eyes as they
gasp for breath. They usually vomit after their coughing spell, then collapse
into a tired heap to rest up before the next session. Adults with pertussis can
cough so hard that they break ribs. Can you imagine what a small child is going
through? I have also seen cases progress into respiratory arrest and death, or brain damage due to hypoxia. Why would
any parent put their child at such a risk?
In middle Tennessee, we have experienced an increase in immigrants from Mexico, and many of the adults have
never been immunized against rubella. At Vanderbilt, we have had cases of congenital rubella, something I would
never have guessed I would see in my lifetime. The two infected infants with
whom I worked were deaf, blind, had brain damage, and severe heart defects. Neither infant
survived. I saw their parents huddled over their cribs, powerless to do anything for their children.
Other diseases like diphtheria could possibly make a
comeback in this country. Diphtheria is a disease that causes a membrane to form across the
trachea, slowly suffocating the patient if untreated. At the turn of the century,
an outbreak of diphtheria claimed the lives of children and adults in Nome, Alaska, but we have had
very few cases in the United States recently. However, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia
experienced a serious epidemic of diphtheria that lasted for years.
From an infection control standpoint, I cannot help but wonder at the havoc that would be generated if most
parents decided not to vaccinate their children against these "outdated" diseases. Hospitals would start to fill
up with children stricken with measles and chickenpox, and because of the extremely
contagious nature of these diseases, the victims would have to be placed in rooms
with special air filters and negative air flow to keep the disease from spreading to the leukemia patient down
the hall. How many isolation rooms would we need to handle America's children?
I have seen the news media run specials on the "evils" of vaccines, interviewing vaccine "victims." These
reporters never interview the millions of immunized, healthy, and disease-free children--that would be
boring! When I began my infection control experience at Vanderbilt, we saw a lot of
meningitis cases caused by Haemophilus influenzae type b. The disease was spread
person-to-person by direct contact or from respiratory droplets, so infants in daycare were particularly
susceptible. These children would often die or suffer brain damage if they survived. In the late 1980s,
immunization with Hib vaccine was begun and the number of Hib meningitis cases dropped
to near zero. Yet I never saw a "Dateline" or "20/20" episode on that success
There is nothing worse to a parent than losing a child, nothing. Nothing can
ease the pain. I know because I have experienced that pain. I lost my own son
to congenital heart disease. I too, had to pick out a coffin instead of a birthday
gift. I go to a grave site instead of a birthday party. My son's congenital heart
disease was random and not preventable. Pertussis, measles, mumps, and rubella are preventable.
Dr. David Satcher, the U.S. Surgeon General, has pointed out that Australia,
Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, Italy, Japan, and Russia all learned the hard
way that if you cut vaccine programs, infectious diseases return with a vengeance. With this experience,
these countries reinstated their immunization programs. I urge everyone to support our nation's vaccine
program, and to encourage its growth to better protect all citizens from preventable disease.
Vicki Brinsko, RN, CIC
Infection Control Coordinator
Vanderbilt University Medical Center
Editor's note: To read "Unprotected People" stories that were previously published in IAC EXPRESS visit: