Rebecca’s Son

24 10 2011

(Christopher died from a devastating case of chickenpox. His mom, Rebecca, shared her son’s story until the day she died, and we’d like to share it with you. This is taken from testimony she gave to a U.S. House of Representatives’ committee.)

My name is Rebecca Cole, and I am the mother of five children. I am speaking to you today because I have faced the worst nightmare any parent can possibly face. There is no experience on earth that compares to the horror and devastation of losing a child. It is shattered dreams, crushed wishes, and a future that suddenly vanishes before our eyes. It cannot be wished away, slept away, prayed away, or screamed away. It is darkness, agony, and shock. It leaves our hearts broken, bleeding, and bursting with pain.

My life changed forever on June 30, 1988, when I had to stand by helplessly as an infectious disease claimed the life of my oldest child, Christopher Aaron Chinnes, at the age of 12.

Christopher was a beautiful little boy who had light blonde hair, and deep, brown eyes. He was full of compassion, joy, and energy. He loved baseball, and every living creature on the earth. He wanted to be a scientist or doctor. I can honestly say that my son was one of the most beautiful human beings I have ever known, and I am proud to have been his mother.

Christopher was born a very healthy child, but at the age of eight he developed asthma. It was never a problem for him, and it never kept him from doing the things he loved. But, on June 16, 1988, four years after he was diagnosed, he suffered his first and only severe asthma attack. He had to be hospitalized and was treated with all of the normally prescribed drugs, including a corticosteroid. (Anti-inflammatory drugs used in asthma, arthritis, allergies, etc.) He was released four days later with several medications to finish at home, and he was well on his way to recovery.

On June 23, exactly one week after the asthma attack, he broke out with the chickenpox. “Don’t worry, you’ll get over it,” I told him. What I didn’t know was that the corticosteroid had lowered his body’s immune response and he could not fight the disease. The chickenpox began to rampage wildly through his young body. As I drove him to the emergency room, on June 27, my four younger children watched silently in shock and horror as their brother went into seizures, went blind, turned gray, and collapsed due to hemorrhaging in his brain.

That afternoon, Christopher was flown from Camp Lejuene’s Naval Hospital to East Carolina University’s Medical Center, but the chickenpox was uncontrollably sweeping through him like a wildfire, and there was nothing anyone could do.

The next day Christopher suffered a cardiac arrest and slipped into a coma. As my son lay swollen beyond recognition, and hemorrhaging from every area imaginable, including out into the blisters on his skin, I learned that a vaccine existed, but was not yet licensed by the FDA—a vaccine that could have prevented the unimaginable suffering of my child, and all who knew him.

On June 30, 1988, exactly one week after breaking out with chickenpox, Christopher passed away. The chickenpox virus had destroyed every organ in his body, and it cut pieces from the hearts of everyone who witnessed its devastation.

Christopher wanted to be a scientist or doctor, but because of the unavailability of a vaccine, we will never know what contributions he might have made to society.

Vaccines prevent countless deaths each year. Without them the number of valuable human beings we’d lose would be staggering. There are children and adults who come in contact with the public everyday who would die if they were exposed to the diseases we can prevent.

If everyone around them is vaccinated, they are also protected. We owe it to them and to ourselves as a nation to achieve the highest level of protection possible. We must win the war against infectious disease, and vaccines are our most powerful weapons. We cannot win, however, if we do not use them. Leaving any of our population unprotected is like surrendering to a defeatable foe. We must never surrender.

Rebecca Cole





Vaccine Fears: What You Can Do

22 08 2011

What’s not to fear directly about vaccines? There’s a needle that someone pokes into your child. Your child screams. You tense up. What’s in there? you wonder. Viral or bacterial bits that, in ways that are mysterious to a non-immunologist, will keep your child well when intuition seems to say they ought to make your child sick.

Needles, screaming, microbial bits…these naturally would make any parent blanch. The number of vaccines has added to the fear for at least a decade, leading to non–evidence-based calls to “spread out” the schedule or reduce the number of vaccinations.

In fact, the evidence supports the schedule as it’s recommended.

The fear of vaccination is not new. Since Edward Jenner and his cowpox inoculation at the turn of the 19th century, people have latched onto the fear of the known—those needles!—and unknown—what’s in those things?

What might be considered the first anti-vaccine cartoon appeared in response to Jenner’s proposed inoculation of cowpox to combat smallpox.

The vision of cows growing out of arms is comical, but the reality of possible side effects from today’s vaccines can lead some parents to keep their children away from the doctor’s office. Indeed, this anxiety has done so since the days of the 19th century anti-vaccination leagues, aligned against the widespread use of Jenner’s smallpox vaccine.

The vaccine wars in those days were just as bitter and divisive as they are today, including an 1885 march in England in which anti-vaccination forces carried a child’s coffin and an effigy of Jenner himself. Today’s most fanatical crusaders against vaccines may not carry coffins or effigies, but death threats against those who promote vaccines for public health are not unknown.

The fact that the vast majority of parents overcame those fears and had their children vaccinated has led to some of the greatest public health successes of the 20th century. Thanks to the willingness of people to participate in vaccination programs, smallpox disappeared and polio became a thing of the past in much of the world. Indeed, people in those eras knew, often from personal experience, what these diseases could do—maim and kill—and the fear of those very real outcomes outweighed fears of the vaccinations.

But today, we’re different. In the United States, most of us under a certain age have never witnessed a death from diphtheria or tetanus or smallpox or measles. We haven’t seen a child drained of life as a rotavirus rapidly depletes the molecules she needs to live. Many of us have not witnessed the sounds of pertussis, the vomiting, the exploding lungs in an agony of infant death. Why? Because of vaccines.

This very success has, ironically, led to the resurgence of fear and misgiving about vaccines. No longer weighed against anxiety of death or disability from disease, the fear of vaccines now aligns against the bright picture of a nation of children largely free of life-threatening illness.

Without the collective memory of days when children played on the playground one day and died the next of vaccine-preventable disease, the calculus of parental fear pits only the side effects of vaccines against the healthy child. Vaccination requires intentional agency—parental agreement—to impose on that healthy child the very small risk that vaccines carry. Some parents simply are not comfortable either with that intentionality or that risk.

Feeding this reluctance is the explosion of Internet sites that warn against vaccines or disseminate incorrect information about them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has provided abundant information about vaccines, including a page devoted to countering erroneous information with facts.

This information will not move the fiercest anti-vaccine groups that lump the CDC in with pharmaceutical companies and others in an alleged conspiracy to harm millions via a money-making vaccine industry. However, it certainly helps concerned parents who simply seek to calm fears, weigh evidence, and make an informed decision about choosing vaccines over the life-threatening illness and compromised public health that result when people don’t vaccinate.

Indeed, these threats to public health have grown considerably with recent large outbreaks of measles and pertussis. The growing threat has led to calls for more stringent requirements for childhood vaccines, including dropping exemptions and requiring that all children be vaccinated over parental objections. This tactic likely would increase vaccination rates among children attending school.

But instead of strong-arming parents into having their children vaccinated, what we really need is a two-fold approach to education. First, we need sober, non-sensationalist reporting from the news media about vaccine-related stories, including stories about side effects, research, and court cases. These articles—and their sensational headlines—are in all likelihood among the prime drivers of the rumor mill against vaccines.

Second, when parents read these stories and turn to a medical professional for input, that input must come as part of a two-way communication between the health professional and the parent, not in lecture format or as patronizing. A little, “I understand your concerns because I’ve had them, too, but here’s what I know that gives me confidence in vaccines,” is considerably better than, “Your child has to be vaccinated, or you can get out of my office.”

As centuries of history attest, no efforts will completely eradicate vaccine fears. Motivations fueling anti-vaccine sentiment that go beyond information gaps range from personal economic benefit to a desire to out-expert the experts to the inertia of fear.

But a careful and persistent information campaign and outreach efforts from medical professionals in the trenches may help keep vaccination rates sufficiently high. To ensure adequate rates requires either these efforts or a resurgence of the deadly diseases that have graphically demonstrated the real balance of the threats at issue here.

Which one would we rather have?

By Emily Willingham

Image courtesy of ajc1





Virus Slams Unvaccinated

7 07 2011

A deadly disease is marching its way across the United States and Canada. It’s a disease that infects about 20 million people every year and kills about 200,000. The United States once was a hotbed of infection, seeing almost 900,000 cases of this disease in 1941. But by the 1990s, that number had dropped to fewer than 150 cases annually. Why? Vaccinations.

The disease is measles. It sounds . . . childish, doesn’t it? And people often refer to it as a “childhood disease.” But make no mistake. It’s a virus, one that doesn’t care whom it infects or what tissues it targets, whether brain or lungs. A virus that has a 90% infection rate. A virus that kills children who seem perfectly healthy one day and are dead from lung complications or encephalitis the next. Roald Dahl’s daughter died of measles. Mark Twain almost did. Even though the descriptive “childhood” often accompanies it, there’s nothing remotely childish or casual about this virus. Hospitalization rates are high, and death is not uncommon. In 2005, for example, a total of 311,000 children worldwide died from measles.

And a couple of shots in the arm (or leg) can prevent all of it.

You might think that the outbreak in 2008 would’ve spurred some parents to ensure vaccinations for their children. After all, that year saw more measles cases in the United States than had happened in any year since 1997. Of the people infected, 90% had not been vaccinated or had an unknown vaccination status, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Now, this year is well on its way to besting that record and then some.

Some notable facts about this year’s outbreak through May 20, 2011:

  • From 2001 to 2008, a median of 56 measles cases were reported annually to the CDC.
  • During the first 19 weeks of 2011, 118 were reported.
  • 89% of this year’s cases have been linked to import from other countries.
  • About 89% of those who have contracted measles so far have been unvaccinated.
  • 40% of those who have contracted measles in this outbreak have been hospitalized.
  • All but one of the hospitalized patients were unvaccinated (the one vaccinated patient was hospitalized for observation only).
  • Rates of hospitalization have been 52% for children under 5 years and 33% for children over age 5 and for adults.
  • Transmission has occurred in households, childcare centers, shelters, schools, emergency departments, and at a large community event.
  • One outbreak alone in Minnesota has encompassed 21 people so far, including seven infants too young to have been vaccinated.

This virus doesn’t care who you are, how old you are, how healthy you are, whether or not you were breastfed or organically fed or loved beyond all measure. It’s a virus. It kills, with pain and distress. And, it bears repeating, a couple of shots in the arm can stop it.

By Emily Willingham

Image courtesy Wellcome Library, London





Babies, Kids, and H1N1

3 09 2009

Delivery/Post-Partum and H1N1 – what do I do?

Breastfeeding may help protect newborns against influenza, but mom’s good handwashing habits before and after breastfeeding are just as important. If you are on medication for flu, you can still breastfeed. Your provider may suggest that you wear a mask when near your baby. If you have symptoms, you can still breastfeed; the milk is not contagious. But stay away from your baby if you are feverish.

Mothers who are infected with H1N1 when they deliver do not necessarily have to be separated from their newborn. A mother on medication should be able to breastfeed; separating her from her infant would not be advantageous. A mother who is actively sick with symptoms will not be very capable of caring for an infant and will need help, which will also help minimize contact and transmission. All caregivers should be vaccinated, and should also get a Tdap vaccination (tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis).

Do I need to worry about outbreaks in schools?

Because of the H1N1 outbreaks in community settings (camps, e.g.) this summer, experts do expect schools to be breeding grounds for H1N1.

School closure is an option, but is not expected to be necessary. Students (or anyone) with flu symptoms should stay home.

Other Concerns

Getting the pneumococcal vaccine can help reduce your risk of developing pneumonia as a complication of influenza infection.

For mothers infected with H1N1, masks are recommended in certain circumstances. Talk with your provider if you’re concerned. You should not need to wear a mask or gloves at home.

Do NOT attend a “flu party.” You should NOT purposefully infect yourself, or your children, with H1N1.

Recommendations

  • Fever and respiratory symptoms need to be taken seriously. Call your provider if you have any symptoms or concerns. Ask them for specific instructions; for example, they may want you to put on a mask before entering their office to help prevent infecting pregnant women.
  • Get vaccinated for both seasonal and H1N1 flu viruses. The seasonal vaccine will not protect you against H1N1.
  • Wash your hands often.
  • Maintaining good nutrition and getting plenty of rest will also help prevent illness.
  • Continue to receive prenatal care from your provider.
  • Everyone who is sick should stay home.

To get vaccinated, talk with your provider. OB/GYNs are supposed to receive vaccine to have on hand, in addition to clinics, pharmacies, and other typical venues for flu vaccine administration. If you have any concerns, about anything, at any time, talk with your provider – that’s what they’re there for!

To explore this issue further, visit:

Check with your provider to see if immunization is right for you and your family.

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