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Vaccines called safe option

Friday, March 7, 2014

By BEN R. WILLIAMS - Bulletin Staff Writer

In spite of misinformation, vaccines remain a safe, scientifically proven way to prevent disease, according to Dr. Margaret O’Dell.

O’Dell is the acting health director of the West Piedmont Health District, which includes the city of Martinsville and Henry, Franklin and Patrick counties.

O’Dell said she routinely hears people — often parents — voice concerns about vaccinations of all kinds, whether they are flu shots or pertussis vaccines. However, she said, vaccinations remain a healthy, safe and scientifically proven method of preventing the spread of disease.

“The reluctance of some parents to vaccinate their children began to gain momentum some years ago,” O’Dell said, “when there was an erroneous link to some adverse outcomes. That original study has been completely debunked.”

According to O’Dell, an article was written that linked childhood vaccinations to autism. Although that article has since been retracted, some people still falsely believe that the link exists, she said.

According to online sources, in 2011, an outbreak of pertussis, also known as whooping cough, occurred at a small alternative school in Floyd County. None of the infected students had been vaccinated against the disease.

“Pertussis is probably the most common outbreak we see these days of vaccine-preventable disease,” O’Dell said, adding that clusters of mumps and measles also happen occasionally.

During the Floyd pertussis outbreak, she said, a student in Virginia Tech’s public health master’s program did an assessment of why parents don’t vaccinate their children. The student found that parents who choose not to vaccinate generally do so for one of three reasons:

1. The parents believe that vaccinations are part of a government conspiracy.

2. The parents believe that children should be allowed to develop a natural immunity; for example, by letting a child who has not had chicken pox play with a child who is actively infected with chicken pox.

3. The parents believe that vaccines are simply unhealthy and prefer alternative medicine.

O’Dell believes that the reason so much misinformation about vaccines has spread so easily is because of the Internet.

“Most people don’t know what the best websites are for this information,” she said. “It’s hard to sort out opinion versus fact.”

Often, she said, coincidental factors cause people to believe vaccines are either ineffective or dangerous. For example, if someone receives a flu shot and catches an unrelated respiratory illness days or weeks later, he will often decide that the flu shot was responsible for the illness.

“From the family’s point of view,” she said, “there’s no denying that the illness was caused by the vaccine. It’s a very difficult thing to dispel.”

Many preventable diseases, such as pertussis, are not merely an inconvenience; they can be deadly. According to O’Dell, of infants younger than 1 year who have contracted pertussis, half will need to be hospitalized, and 1.6 out of 100 will die.

O’Dell believes that another part of the reason many people choose not to vaccinate against childhood disease is because many are too young to remember just how awful the diseases once were.

“I’m 59,” O’Dell said. “I remember these diseases (such as measles, mumps, polio, rubella and pertussis). I remember the visceral fear they caused. My parents knew lots of people who died from these childhood diseases. There was still a social memory of the effects of the diseases when I was a child that does not exist now.”

O’Dell said she recently went hiking with a friend who contracted polio as a child. As a result of the disease, she said, one of his legs is half the diameter of the other.

O’Dell asked her friend what he thought of people who choose not to vaccinate their children against preventable childhood diseases.

Her friend, O’Dell said, wished those people could understand how deeply polio affected his life, particularly between the ages of 5 and 15.

“So much of his childhood was dominated by the disease,” O’Dell said, adding that her friend remembered one of the biggest milestones in his life was the day his doctor told him he no longer needed to wear a brace on his leg.

Another reason that O’Dell believes some people decide against vaccinations, she said, is because of the concept of “herd immunity,” which is the scientific theory that if a large percentage of the population is vaccinated against a disease, it is less likely that unvaccinated members of the population will become infected because there’s a smaller chance they will come into contact with an infected person.

The problem, O’Dell said, is that for diseases such as pertussis, 92-94 percent of the population needs to be vaccinated for herd immunity to take place. The fewer people who choose to be vaccinated, the more unlikely it is that the percentage will be high enough.

O’Dell advises anyone seeking more information on vaccinations to contact his or her primary care physician or to visit the Virginia Department of Health website at or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website at


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