Unprotected People Reports: General
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
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
|2/22/00 • REPORT #22
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