Nurse tackles vaccine myths at Live Well Health Expo

(LV Review Journal) Speaking Saturday at the 2013 Live Well Health Expo, former pediatric nurse JoAnn Rupiper sought to dispel vaccine myths and misconceptions.

Now a public health nurse with the Southern Nevada Health District, Rupiper began her talk at the Bill and Lillie Heinrich YMCA by asking how many people in her audience had ever seen a person with polio.

She was not surprised when only people over 60 years old raised their hands.

She asked about polio because vaccine has eradicated the once-common disease in the United States.

Rupiper cited it, along with smallpox, as a shining example of vaccination as a preventive health measure and of the importance of seeing that children are properly vaccinated.

“The purpose of vaccination,” she said, “is to prevent infections that are still common in other parts of the world.”

Vaccines are made from weakened strains of the virus they are used to prevent. These strains “teach” the immune system to resist and fight infection.

She asked the audience, “What disease did parents want their children to get before the vaccine was available?”

The answer is chickenpox, a viral infection known to health professionals as “varicella.”

“Even chickenpox is a serious illness,” she noted. “Before the vaccine, almost everyone got chickenpox and six out of every 100,000 infants who got it died from the infection. About 1 out of every 1,000 children infected will develop severe pneumonia or encephalitis. One out of every 50 women infected with varicella during their pregnancy will deliver children with birth defects.”

Rupiper said it’s been shown that kids, even newborns, can handle vaccines and they should be inoculated to prevent disease. Health care providers know what vaccinations children and adults need and when they need them, she said.

“Who do you think received more antigens – the toxins that trigger an immune response – from vaccines: children in the 1940s or children today?” she asked her audience.

She answered her own question.

“Although children in the 1940s only received vaccines to prevent four diseases, they got about 3,200 antigens whereas today’s children receive vaccines to prevent 14 diseases but only get about 156 antigens,” she said.

“Scientific understanding of vaccines and technological advances in the laboratory have allowed scientists and manufacturers to make vaccines that are more purified and contain fewer antigens while still affording immune protection. Before any vaccine is approved by the government it undergoes rigorous testing for safety and effectiveness.”

To illustrate her point that vaccines are safe, effective and necessary, Rupiper showed a chart comparing deaths from infections in the pre-vaccine era and in the year 2000 in the United States after vaccines were developed for many infections.

The numbers provided showed that diphtheria cases in that time went from 175,885 to zero, a 100 percent decrease. Polio cases went from 16,316 to zero. Whooping cough (pertussis) decreased by 89.4 percent by 2000, but health professionals are now seeing more cases than they have in many years.

“Pertussis,” Rupiper noted, “is known as ‘whooping cough’ because of the sound children make when they try to breathe in air against their windpipe that is clogged by thick, sticky mucus. This is one disease that is more commonly spread from adults to children, when most infections are spread from children to adults.”

In 2012, there were 41,000 cases in the United States, up from 19,719 cases in 2011. There were 18 deaths in 2012.

There are several reasons pertussis is still of concern.

First, it is often mistaken for a cold and often isn’t diagnosed until it is past the stage of being contagious.

Second, although there is a vaccine for it, as of 2009, only 6 percent of U.S. adults between the ages of 19 and 64 were vaccinated.

In the end, Rupiper’s advice was for parents to see that they and there children are vaccinated against all preventable infections.

If everyone does that, she said, we’ll all be healthier.

The Southern Nevada Health District and Las Vegas Review-Journal were among the sponsors of the health expo.