Dr. Jennie McLaurin has seen it all. “I’ve seen everything that we immunize against, which is why I’m so pro-immunization,” says the Unity Care NW pediatrician.
“Whatcom County has one of the worst childhood immunization rates in the country because there’s a lot of fear around immunization,” says McLaurin. “I honor that they’re trying to make the best decision for their child, and I’m trying to make the best medical decision as a doctor.”
McLaurin’s insight comes from her own experience. “Seeing a child who’s sick with one of those illnesses is sometimes what convinces parents to get their children immunized,” she says.
A practicing pediatrician for 30 years, McLaurin has seen the world with and without immunizations. She has been at the bedside of countless dying infants and suffering children and, as a result, believes wholeheartedly in vaccinations for her patients and her own children, as well.
Polio is a vicious, highly contagious disease that attacks its victims’ nervous systems, causing difficulty breathing, paralysis and even death. “Thirty years ago, when I went to India, I saw children with polio who were dragging a leg and were beggars,” says McLaurin. The impression stuck.
In the early 1950s, more than 15,000 polio cases were reported every year in the United States. A polio vaccine was introduced in 1955 and, after being administered, the numbers declined tremendously. In the early 1960s, less than 100 cases were reported each year. Numbers continued to decline during the 1970s.
Today the United States has completely eradicated this disease that once caused constant fear among parents and children. Polio is still alive in certain parts of Asia and Africa, and it occasionally comes West with a traveler. But because of mass vaccination in the United States, it never regained traction here.
“Herd immunity” is when a large number of people have immunity to a disease, effectively halting the contagion’s spread. It also helps protect the weak and vulnerable by cutting off the disease’s access. Scientific proof shows we all need to work together to eliminate these dangerous diseases.
“Many times, we want an older child to get another pertussis immunization, not because we’re trying to protect them, but to protect the babies,” says McLaurin. “A few years ago in California, they had 12 babies die of pertussis. That was an epidemic; they were too young to be fully immunized, so we needed all those older people to be protected.”
But, although outbreaks are scary, there is hope. “The positive news is that immunizations are really, really effective,” says McLaurin. “I can’t tell you how many children I’ve watched die of Hib (Haemophilus Influenzae Type B) or meningitis, and how awful that was. So when the vaccine came out, we were overjoyed, and now very few pediatric residents and young pediatricians have ever seen a Hib infection.”
Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is another vaccination McLaurin advises her patients to use. “I saw a number of infants die of pertussis,” she says. “It hasn’t gone away and it’s a horrible illness in people who aren’t babies. But in babies, it’s a choking-to-death illness. You watch babies literally not be able to breathe, turn blue and get pneumonia, and you know once that sets in, there isn’t anything you can do. It’s excruciating to sit at the bedside of a baby and see that.”
The wonderful thing about modern medicine is that most of the particularly horrible viruses are now preventable. Vaccinations have made our children’s lives so much safer and happier. We just need to use them.
“Now we’re a couple generations in and people haven’t seen it; they know that it’s mostly eradicated in the world and they’re not so worried about it,” says McLaurin.
But now’s not the time to let down our collective guard. “The proof is that they haven’t seen their friends’ kids get hospitalized and they haven’t seen a problem,” McLaurin says. “It’s not because the illnesses don’t exist, it’s because people have gotten immunized against them. I’m grateful that I don’t have to worry about my own children or most other people’s children. I’m grateful that I don’t have to look at a parent and tell them bad news. It’s huge.”
Unfortunately, despite medical and scientific advancement, fear and mistrust are holding some parents back from immunizing their children. And there have been consequences. “Measles and pertussis are on the rise,” says McLaurin. “People are very worried that we’re going to have a big measles epidemic because of the lack of immunizations. Mumps makes boys sterile and measles [often leads to] pneumonia or meningitis. Ten percent end up hospitalized.”
Three years ago, a large outbreak of measles occurred at Disneyland. Of the 125 reported cases, a large percentage of those infected were unvaccinated. The outbreak caused many parents to rethink their decisions. Two of the children infected were patients of McLaurin’s. After they recovered from the virus, their parents brought them in for immunizations.
“In India, we immunized people who had seen all the diseases,” McLaurin says. “And when their child got the immunizations, the mothers literally hugged me. They had tears; they were so grateful because they knew their child wasn’t going to get the diseases.”
McLaurin encourages people to look at the issue critically. “I know it takes trust in something that people don’t want to trust,” she says. “I don’t actually trust drug companies, per se, but I trust the outcomes of what I’ve seen; the illness is not existing and the vast majority of kids flying through their vaccinations with no problems.”