Glenn Cunningham, the remarkable distance runner from Kansas, was one of my heroes decades ago when I was an elementary school boy in southern Oregon. He overcame severe burns to his legs from a school fire that took the life of his older brother, and he became a world-class miler. As an adult I chose to become an Arkansan. That choice seemed even better the first time I learned that Cunningham had moved to Arkansas.
My hero worship of Glenn Cunningham was passed on to Jim Ryun, another world-record-setting Kansas miler. He trained in Oregon for a while, but Willamette Valley pollen interfered with his training. Years later I served with Jim in Congress. After getting him to autograph one of his Sports Illustrated covers (all kinds of things happen on the House floor during votes), we talked. And that's when I learned that he lost much of his hearing from measles when he was a boy.
He told me that for years he had great difficulty hearing conversations in any kind of group setting, but later in life the quality of hearing aids improved so much that he could function well in a crowded room. Without the hearing aids, he would not have been able to run for Congress.
I remember when I had the measles. I was in second grade, I missed seven days of school, and I was miserable; but this is what I remember the most: when the public health nurse came by to check on me lying on the sofa in our small living room, she circled around the house and came through the back door so she did not have to get anywhere near me. She looked at me from our kitchen across the room.
The measles virus was first isolated by medical researchers in 1954, around the time I was sick. In those days about 500,000 measles cases were reported in America, but there were probably 3.5 million to 5 million total cases, mostly unreported. There were deaths, and there were many kids with permanent disabilities like hearing loss. Once it was isolated, work began on a vaccine, and over the next few decades, the numbers began to decline when vaccination numbers became great enough to confer herd immunity.
We have not had to think much about measles, but enough American children are unvaccinated that outbreaks are now occurring.
Tetanus is another disease we don't think about much. In 2017, a 6-year-old boy in Oregon cut his forehead. His parents cleaned it and stitched it up at home. Within a week symptoms of tetanus began, caused by bacterial spores that entered the wound when it was cut. He spent 57 miserable days in the hospital, including 47 days in intensive care. The bill was over $800,000. The boy had received no vaccines. When I was working in Thailand, I saw two cases: one a young man who recovered well; the other a newborn baby who did not. Buffalo dung had been applied to the umbilical stump. Tetanus is not spread from person to person. The spores reside in dirt throughout the world, and any unvaccinated person is at risk.
While Americans have not had to think much about measles and tetanus, women often have to think about cervical cancer and cervical cancer screening. But progress is being made.
The cancer-prevention vaccine for human papilloma virus (HPV) has been recommended for pre-adolescents for over a decade, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the data is now showing a dramatic reduction in pre-cancerous changes for women ages 20-24. The vaccine and regular screening is working.
The day may come when cervical cancer, like measles and tetanus, is something we don't have to think about much if we get vaccinations and good preventive care.
Vic Snyder is the corporate medical director for external affairs at Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield.
Editorial on 05/30/2019
Print Headline: Vaccines work