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Safety & Prevention

Pediatrician Remembers Consequences of Diphtheria in the 1970s


By Michael O'Halloran, MD, FAAP

Resistance to immunizations has been a common problem since I began in pediatrics more than 40 years ago. For many reasons, parents have declined to immunize their children. In most of these cases, they have become misinformed.

For example, I remember advertisements in the early 1970's urging parents to skip immunization in favor of another pseudo-health treatment. That is a particularly vivid memory, because at that same time I was saddened and angry after witnessing the terrible consequence faced by a child who had not been vaccinated for diphtheria. It was an 11-year-old boy who died of diphtheria. He had not received his immunizations. There may have been reasons for this, but perhaps it related to the vaccine not being available in his Mexican homeland at the time. In any case, we got him past some of the early complications of diphtheria only to have him pass away as a result of a diphtheria-related heart complication.

Around that same time, I was also saddened when I watched a 3-year-old girl die of measles pneumonia, the most common cause of death in children with measles.

Vaccine resistance and misinformation seems to have become more of a problem in recent years. A few years after the chickenpox vaccine became available, I witnessed a case of necrotizing fasciitis, the so-called flesh-eating bacteria related to chickenpox. It was in the arm of a boy who had not received the chickenpox vaccine. Fortunately, he survived and, with medication and surgery, his arm was saved.

Sometimes, when a pediatrician suggests immunizations for a child, it seems that parents resists because they think the doctor is saying they shouldn't have the right to make decisions for their child. The issue of parent autonomy is, of course, a valid one but that is not the discussion. The discussion is whether the vaccine is safe and effective and that immunizations might just save a child's life!

About Dr. O'Halloran:

Michael O'Halloran, MD, FAAP is a retired pediatrician with 30+ years of practice in front-line general pediatrics for Midelfort Clinic-Mayo Health System in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. He is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Senior Members.


Medicine Before Vaccines

This article is part of a series of first-person accounts from senior pediatricians about what it was like to practice pediatric medicine before vaccines for diseases like meningitis, measles and the flu were available. These articles are being published in recognition of National Immunization Awareness Month, which is held in August every year.


Michael O’Halloran, MD, FAAP
Last Updated
American Academy of Pediatrics (Copyright © 2015)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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