Taking a stand against preventable disease
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The mother who recently gave birth on a flight to Fort Lauderdale was lucky, and not just because the delivery in the air went smoothly. News reports have stated both she and her baby boy are doing well. A healthy birth is not something to take for granted, and neither is a healthy childhood. It only takes one accident or misfortune to change a child’s life—or to take it away entirely.

What if, for example, that flight’s other passengers had exposed her vulnerable newborn to the deadly disease of measles, which was eliminated in the U.S. nearly two decades agothanks to high vaccination rates?  That infant, celebrated as a miracle in flight, could today be struggling to survive. One out of every 20 children who contract the disease will develop pneumonia, the most common cause of measles deaths.

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This scenario could happen, someday—but we can prevent that. This year, more than 50 people in the Pacific Northwest have been diagnosed with measles, and at least 15 others are suspected to have contracted the disease, prompting Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to declare a health emergency. Meanwhile, nearly 200 people in New York and New Jersey alone contracted the disease last year. These happenings are not unique to coastal areas. Disease doesn’t recognize geographical borders.

The problem is not that our tools for fighting the disease have stopped working; it’s that a small number of people have stopped using them. That’s costly in terms of human lives, and also for our economy. Every dollar spent on childhood immunizations results in $44 in economic benefits. That includes saving money that a family loses when a child is sick and a parent cannot work.

The good news is that far more people vaccinate their children than those who don’t, because they recognize that vaccines are safe, backed by decades of research and carefully tested. For the vast majority of the population, the minor side effects associated with vaccines are far less serious than the complications of the disease they prevent. Vaccinating children against measles and other preventable health threats is fortunately still the societal norm.

Even so, vaccination rates are a trend we must watch carefully because any dramatic change could disrupt a delicate balance. Infants too young to be vaccinated, older adults and people with weak immune systems rely on those around them to be vaccinated. “Community immunity” can only be achieved if 90 to 95 percent of people receive vaccines.

Many who eschew vaccines say that measles, mumps and other vaccine-preventable diseases were once expected parts of childhood. But it’s important to remember that these diseases had devastating, sometimes fatal consequences before vaccines existed. In the decade after the U.S. began tracking measles in 1912, it killed an average of 6,000 people per year. Before the measles vaccine was introduced in 1963, about 3 to 4 million children were sickened with the disease each year, leading to 48,000 hospitalizations. And about 1,000 of those children suffered encephalitis, a dangerous swelling of the brain.

Many of us and our families are privileged to have not grown up with these diseases and the loss and grief associated with them—including, most likely, the woman who gave birth in the friendly skies. She, and all of us, deserve a world where our children and grandchildren can enjoy that same privilege.

Each day, the biopharmaceutical companies, academic institutions, and related organizations I represent work to establish tools and treatments to help people avoid disease. Vaccines are powerful tools, ones that offer the promise of longer, healthier lives. But they only work when you—and those around you—receive them.

Jim Greenwood is the president and chief executive officer of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization.