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Dr. Sara H. Goza is the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Polio no longer stalks children in this country, but in the early 1950s, outbreaks caused more than 15,000 cases of paralysis each year. Until smallpox officially was declared eradicated around the globe in 1980, the devastating disease wiped out about 3 of every 10 people who contracted it. Major epidemics of measles once caused an estimated 2.6 million deaths each year, but between 2000 and 2018, the world witnessed a 73 percent drop in measles deaths worldwide, the World Health Organization estimates.
There is one reason for all of this: vaccines.
The CDC estimates that for children born in the U.S. from 1994 to 2013, vaccinations will prevent about 322 million illnesses, 21 million hospitalizations, and 732,000 deaths over their lifetimes.
The new COVID-19 vaccine provides hope.
After approval from the FDA and the CDC, the first known coronavirus vaccination in the United States happened Monday morning in New York City, state officials said — a powerful weapon in the fight against a pandemic that to date has left 300,000 people dead in the U.S.
It is appropriate that a nurse at a medical center was the first to receive a shot, outside of a vaccine trial. Our medical professionals have endured months of exhausting shifts at hospitals and medical centers, separation from their families, the stress of treating seriously ill and dying patients, the fear of contracting a deadly virus, and the misinformation spread by skeptics who refuse to wear masks and who shun advice to stay away from others.
As a pediatrician, I believe in vaccines. I know vaccines save lives. That’s why we recommend all children and teens receive immunizations to prevent diseases like measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis, polio, influenza, and HPV — saving them from serious illnesses and death. We look forward to when a COVID-19 vaccine will be available to children of all ages, once the research is complete.
In pediatric offices, we spend a lot of time talking about immunizations, including helping parents understand the science that proves vaccines are safe and effective. Sadly, we’ve seen how quickly wrong information can spread online, leading parents to delay or decline vaccines. Recently, this played out in measles outbreaks that infected hundreds in the U.S.
The COVID-19 vaccine is the same. It will only work if people agree to get their shot.
As the vaccine becomes more available, more physicians, of all specialties, will need to have these important conversations with their patients. We will have to explain that the science behind this vaccine is sound and followed a rigorous process.
We can share with patients that the vaccine is very effective; the 95 percent effectiveness demonstrated by Pfizer’s vaccine rivals some of our most successful vaccines. And the side effects are also similar to other, well-known vaccines. These are mostly mild or moderate symptoms like a sore arm, fatigue or fever. But it’s far safer and better than getting the disease itself, which can cause severe complications and death even in otherwise healthy people.
We can reassure patients that we will continue to monitor the vaccine as it is rolled out across the country. The U.S. has a robust vaccine safety monitoring system that has been in place and operating behind the scenes for decades. This system has enough power to detect any real problems.
We also know the vaccine will not miraculously make COVID-19 go away and protect everyone immediately.
It’s been a long, frustrating year, but we can’t take our foot off the gas just yet. The end of the road is now, finally, in sight. How long it stretches out before us will depend on how well everyone in the U.S. manages the next few months. We must continue to avoid crowds, wear masks, wash our hands.
And, we now can add: Get the vaccine when it becomes available to you.