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Vaccines have made world a safer place

By Marcy Norton, Dispatch/Argus Staff writer

Photo illustration / file
Dr. David Williams of the Pediatric Group in Moline, with the help of his 2-year-old daughter Madeline, illustrates how simple it is to get a chicken pox vaccination.

As recently as 45 years ago, 500,000 children a year contracted the measles in this country and as many as 500 a year died from it.

Thanks to vaccines and immunizations, now those numbers are just statistics in medical books.

``We just don't see children dying like they used to from childhood diseases. That's really remarkable,'' said Barb Brown, a registered nurse and head of the Rock Island County Health Department's communicable disease and immunization program.

Chicken pox, the most common childhood disease left, is seen almost as a rite of passage these days, and soon, even it could be wiped out. A temporary vaccine is already available, and doctors are working to improve it.

However, when the baby boom generation was born, diseases such as measles, mumps and polio were widely feared. Afflicted children crowded into hospital wards and parents of large families were forced to take off work to treat or pay for hospital care for many sick children at once.

``I had all of them,'' Ms. Brown remembers. ``mumps, measles, whooping cough...I remember being locked in a room with shade down to keep my eyes from hurting. I remember coughing my head off and thinking I'd never stop coughing.''

Polio was particularly dangerous. It felled one of the most powerful and loved presidents of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. When Ms. Brown was in nursing school, she said it was not uncommon to see children confined to iron lungs. ``Those are just pieces in museams now,'' she said, thanks to Jonas Salk's 1954 introduction of the injectable polio vaccine. Though it was available as a shot, most adults remember taking it in the form of a sugar cube.

Children who did survive thier bouts with such diseases often were never the same, she said. Those who beat polio may have recovered, but were left with disabilities. Some measles victims suffered permanent hearing loss.

In addition to the obvious benefit of fewer sick, dying or disabled children, vaccines have aided families financially. Fewer parents need to take time off to care for ill children. They also spend less on doctor or hospital bills.

Various vaccinations allow people safer world travel. Vacationers and others can be protected against yellow fever, hepatitis A, cholera, tetanus, malaria, typhoid and diptheria, among other illnesses.

Annual flu shots especially protect the elderly from what can be deadly symptoms.

Smallpox has been totally eradicated, Ms. Brown said, and polio has disappeared from the Americas.

Work continues on eliminating other diseases. Doctors are currently working to perfect a vaccine for the herpes virus, and of course, the search goes on for an AIDS vaccine.

Copyright 1999, Moline Dispatch Publishing Co.