This post was originally published on Emily Monosson's blog and is reposted with permission.
In light of the fuss over Robert Di Niro and the movie Vaxxed; if anyone needs reminding of the value of vaccines, take a look at this diagram of 20th Century Death. These are estimates as they say but even so the numbers are humbling. I won’t go into the story behind the movie and its writer, director and one-time (now unlicensed) doc, that has been covered plenty (instead here is an interesting NYT article about the developer of the measles vaccine, Dr. Maurice Hilleman.)
Though measles occupies one of the smaller circles, it is credited with killing approximately 97 million worldwide. The Disneyland outbreak also reminds us of days gone by (at least here in the U.S.) when viruses from measles to smallpox spread like wildfire. It is easy to forget when we don’t have to care.
Viruses don’t just kill. And while many of us weather the storm just fine, viruses that cross the placenta can also cause birth defects and death. That is something else we’ve forgotten, although with Zika, Nature is reminding of our place in the world of pathogens. Zika has recently been linked to microcephaly, birth defects and other neurological problems.
Years ago there was Rubella, a virus notorious for causing miscarriage, postnatal death, organ damage and intellectual disability. I am sure my daughter has never heard of it and likely won’t worry about it should she ever become pregnant. She was protected from an early age with the MMR (mumps, measles and rubella) vaccine. Unlike diseases spread from one human to another, there are other ways to try to control the spread of Zika, but mosquito control is a whole other kind of challenge (and, Zika can be spread sexually – the CDC has just issued a warning). If I were of childbearing age, and lived in a high-risk region I would be hoping for a Zika vaccine soon.
Vaccines aren’t perfect. But the number of lives saved and birth defects prevented is undeniable.