By Lance Chilton
We’ve concentrated so much on COVID, it’s been hard to think of anything else. But there are other diseases and other infections: Among a vast number of others, measles, malaria, HIV, and shingles haven’t disappeared forever.
Smallpox does seem to be gone — the result of a very effective vaccine that we no longer have to get. Diphtheria in the 1920s caused one of every 100 children to die; hardly any physician now practicing has seen that deadly infection.
Returning to the present, everyone needs to realize that we must take care to prevent diseases other than COVID, even during the pandemic. We haven’t done very well at that over the past year: the CDC reports that the Vaccines for Children program, which provides about half of children’s and teens’ vaccines nationwide (and all the vaccines in New Mexico, thanks to Senator Bill O’Neill’s 2015 Senate Bill 121!), provided 13,100,000 fewer vaccine doses in the past year than in the year prior. Adult vaccine use is also down throughout the country.
Some of the vaccines we should be getting for ourselves and our children:
- Flu vaccine. We were very lucky in the flu season of 2020-2021: Around the world there were far fewer cases of the flu than usual. Flu typically causes 12,000 to 52,000 deaths each year in the US; this past year there were only 646. Children rarely die from influenza (that’s good!), but they carry it home to their elders (that’s bad!). For those reasons, everyone over 6 months of age should get the flu vaccine, and the time is now.
- Shingles vaccine. Just for those of us over 50. Shingles, or herpes zoster, a skin infection that also frequently involves the nervous system, is very unpleasant, and results, in some cases in chronic pain, deafness, and vision problems.
- “Pneumonia vaccine.” Pneumonia can actually be caused by many germs, viruses, bacteria, parasites, fungi, but the most common cause is the pneumococcus, for which highly effective vaccines exist, both for young children and also for the elderly.
- Human papillomavirus vaccine. HPV can cause cancer in the mouth and throat, as well as in the uterus, vagina or penis. The vaccine is recommended for teenagers before they are likely to contract this sexually transmitted infection, and can be considered for anyone up to age 45.
- Hepatitis A and B vaccines. Hepatitis means liver infection; hep A, transmitted mostly by infected water or food, used to be very common in New Mexico, until vaccines got close to wiping it out. Hep B, usually contracted through blood-contaminated surfaces such as needles, can cause chronic liver disease and liver cancer, all of which can be prevented by a shot. We’d love to have a vaccine for Hep C, but that’s not available yet.
- Whooping cough (pertussis) vaccine. Unlike flu, pertussis is especially risky for very small children. To protect ourselves from an unpleasant disease, and them from a very serious disease, all of us should be up-to-date on this vaccine, which is usually combined with vaccines against tetanus and diphtheria.
- Malaria vaccine. The first effective malaria vaccine has just been approved by the World Health Organization. Although not perfect and not needed for those of us living and staying in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s wonderful to be able to prevent this devastating disease with a vaccine for the first time.
- Polio. Though it’s now at the bottom of my list, polio would have been at the top of my parents’ worry list when I was a child. Polio causes temporary or permanent paralysis of parts of the body and comes back sometimes to plague adults many years after they had it as a child. Now, thanks to vaccines, we almost never see it in the US or in most of the world.
As we celebrate a downturn in COVID, here are some startling, recently published U.S. statistics to remember: There were remarkably 503,000 more deaths in 2020 than in 2019, a 17.7% increase! There have been more than 710,000 deaths from COVID since the pandemic began, and 345,000 of them occurred during 2020. That means there were also more than 150,000 excess deaths from other conditions last year, probably from Americans’ inability to get needed care (and immunizations) in a timely manner during the pandemic. We can’t let our guard down now.