By: Sylvia Owusu-Ansah MD, MPH, FAAP
Each day in the pediatric emergency department, I treat children arriving with a wide range of injuries and illnesses. The cases that are sometimes hardest to deal with are the most preventable ones, like the girl ejected from her family's car during a crash because she wasn't in a car seat.
Seeing a child suffer is never easy—especially when it could have been prevented.
Cases of Measles & Pertussis: All Preventable
I recently treated a kindergartener with measles, which is preventable through vaccination. The child, who hadn't been immunized because of his family's cultural beliefs, had a fever that had lasted for four days and was covered head to toe in a painful rash. He felt miserable and was refusing to eat or drink anything. We read about these classic symptoms in medical school, of course, along with possible complications that include loss of hearing, permanent brain damage, and even death. But because immunizations had all but eliminated measles from the United States until recent years, most of us—including the infectious disease specialists called in—had never actually seen a child with the disease.
Another patient I treated had pertussis (also known as whooping cough), another infectious disease that can be prevented through immunization. The teenage boy, who also had asthma, was taking his medication and doing his breathing treatments, but none of it was helping. His cough had become so intense and uncontrollable. He was literally unable to catch his breath and turning blue. In between the distinctive, high-pitched "whoops" sounds of trying to force air through, he was vomiting violently.
As was the case with the measles patient, this was the first child many of us had treated with pertussis—a disease that killed roughly 8,000 people a year in the United States before a vaccine was developed. Unfortunately, though, we've seen several other cases of whooping cough in our department since then.
Immunizations: The Greatest Success Stories in Modern Medicine
Vaccines, which prevent dangerous and deadly diseases by strengthening the body's own natural defenses to fight off germs that cause infection, are the greatest success stories in modern medicine.
When many of today's grandparents were young, diseases like measles, whooping cough, polio, H. influenzae and rubella sickened and killed millions of people across the in the United States. The safe and effective vaccines now available have significantly reduced or completely eliminated many serious and deadly infectious diseases. But immunizations only work if people get them.
As we've seen in recent years, when parents don't vaccinate their children, diseases regain a foothold in communities and outbreaks return.
Parent to Parent
Like the parents whose children I treat, I, too want to keep my own children healthy and safe. Immunizations are one of the most important and proven ways we can accomplish this.
My 8-year-old daughter was alarmed recently when her baby sister was getting her 6-month immunizations. She was so worried the shots would hurt her sister that she had to leave the room. Afterward, we talked about how vaccines keep us well and read a story book about Louis Pasteur, whose work paved the way for vaccinations.
She now understands that a pin-prick moment of discomfort, eased by a reassuring hug, can lead to a lifetime of well-being.
Additional Information & Resources
About Dr. Owusu-Ansah:
Sylvia Owusu-Ansah MD, MPH, FAAP is a board-certified pediatrician and pediatric emergency medicine physician who is currently an attending in Pittsburgh at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh UPMC and Director of Prehospital and EMS. Within the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Owusu-Ansah sits on the Committee on Pediatric Emergency Medicine and has worked with the D.C. office on federal, state, and community advocacy issues including the School Access to Emergency Epinephrine Act. Dr. Owusu-Ansah is married to a firefighter/paramedic and has two beautiful daughters.
Editor's Note: This article was published in recognition of National Immunization Awareness Month, which is held in August every year.