(This testimony was given on behalf of PKIDs to a U.S. House of Representatives’ committee a few years ago. It is so compelling—and, unfortunately, still relevant—that we wanted to share it with you now.)
My name is Dr. Keith Van Zandt, and as a practicing family physician, I appreciate the opportunity to address this committee regarding hepatitis B vaccines. I have degrees from Princeton and Wake Forest Universities, and completed residency training in family medicine here in Washington at Andrews AFB.
Today, however, I am here as a dad. I have five children, two of whom my wife Dede and I adopted from Romania. Our youngest, Adrianna, was nearly four years old when we adopted her from the orphanage, and was found to have chronic active hepatitis B when we performed blood work prior to bringing her home.
She had contracted this from her mother, who died when Annie was nine months old, from the effects of her liver disease as well as tuberculosis. We have been very fortunate to have had some excellent medical care for Annie, but her first year with us was an endless procession of liver biopsies, blood draws and over 150 painful interferon injections I gave to my new daughter at home. Interferon is a form of chemotherapy for hepatitis B that has many side effects and only a 25 to 40% success rate.
We know first-hand the pain and family disruption this completely preventable disease can bring.
You have already heard testimony from some of the world’s leading experts on hepatitis B and its vaccine, and I can add little new information to that. As a family doctor, though, I see patients every day whose lives have been significantly improved by the immunizations we now have available. My forebears in family medicine struggled in the pre-vaccination era with the ravages of horrible diseases that are now of only historical interest.
Preventive immunizations have so changed our world that I am afraid that we no longer remember how horrible some of these diseases were. My family and I have made multiple trips to Romania to work in the orphanages, and unfortunately I have seen the effects of many of these diseases there.
I am certainly aware of the potential for adverse reactions to our current vaccines, but we must maintain the perspective that these reactions are extremely rare. My partners and I in Winston-Salem care for over 40,000 patients, and I can honestly say that in over 20 years of practice we have never seen a serious adverse reaction to any vaccine. I believe that the vast majority of family physicians around the country can say the same. Certainly, I do not wish to minimize the suffering and losses of families who have experienced these problems, but we must remember that immunizations remain the most powerful and cost-effective means of preventing disease in the modern era.
Personally, it still sickens me to know that the disease my daughter has was completely preventable if hepatitis B vaccines had been available to Annie and her mother.
Whereas 90% of adults who contract hepatitis B get better, 90% of children under the age of one go on to have chronic disease, and 15 to 20% of them die prematurely of cirrhosis or liver cancer.
I know first-hand the gut-wrenching feeling of being told your child has a chronic disease that could shorter their life. I know first-hand the worry parents feel when their hepatitis B child falls on the playground, and you don’t know if her bleeding knee or bloody nose will infect her playmates or teachers. I know first-hand the concern for my other children’s health, with a 1 in 20 chance of household spread of hepatitis, and the thankfulness I feel that they have had the availability of successful vaccines. I know first-hand the pain a parent feels for their child as they undergo painful shots and procedures for their chronic disease with no guarantee of cure.
I am not the world’s leading expert on hepatitis B or the hep B vaccine, but I am an expert on delivering the best medical care I can to my patients in Winston-Salem, NC. I am also not the world’s leading expert on parenting children with chronic diseases, but I am the world’s best expert on parenting my five children.
I know professionally that immunizations in general have hugely improved the lives of those patients who have entrusted their medical care to me. I know personally that had the hepatitis B vaccine been available to my daughter, her life and mine would have been drastically different. I am also thankful that my other children have been spared Annie’s suffering by being successfully vaccinated.
Anecdotes of vaccine reactions are very moving, but they are no substitute for good science. Please allow me to continue to provide the best medical care I can with the best system of vaccinations in the world, and allow me to keep my own family safe.
Thank you very much for your time.
Keith Van Zandt, M.D.