This year, the newest adaptation of the beloved Louisa May Alcott novel Little Women premiered. The coming of age story about three young women has captured the imaginations of generations. Today, however, audiences can no longer truly empathize with the fears and concerns suggested by one plot element – Beth’s contraction of scarlet fever, a form of streptococcal infection.
Vaccinations and improved medical care have nearly eliminated parents’ fears of childhood diseases and their debilitating impact. Pertussis (whooping cough) and diphtheria were major causes of illness and death among children as late as 1950. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were 120,718 cases of pertussis and 1,118 deaths from the disease in 1950, as well as 5,796 cases of diphtheria resulted in another 410 deaths. Even if individuals recovered (the diseases impact adults as well as children), they often suffered life-long disabilities such as blindness, deafness, and paralysis.
The only way to contain outbreaks before vaccinations was by quarantining those infected and their households. According to Journal of American Medical Association articles, these quarantines could last a minimum 42 days causing children to miss weeks of school and parents to miss work. Quarantine placards identified homes and businesses impacted by such diseases and were a familiar sight as recently as the 1950s – especially for polio. The CDC reports 33,300 cases and 1,904 deaths from polio in 1950 alone.
With the development of a polio vaccine in 1953, however, these rates dropped dramatically. In 1954 there were 18,308 cases and 1,306, and by 1960, only 988 cases and 90 deaths were reported. Since 1979, not one case of polio has originated in the U.S. and, today, intensive world-wide vaccination programs begun in 1988 have eliminated the disease from all but two countries.
Vaccine-preventable diseases now include: chickenpox, diphtheria, flu, hepatitis A and B, human papillomavirus (HPV), measles, meningococcal disease, mumps, pneumococcal disease, rubella, shingles, tetanus, and pertussis. Thanks to vaccination programs, the CDC reports that today, most doctors have never seen a case of measles, a disease which almost every person in the U.S. contracted before vaccinations became prevalent. However, the CDC also reports that outbreaks, especially in communities with low vaccination rates, can and do still occur. Only one disease, smallpox, has been completely eradicated; any other disease can make a comeback if vaccination rates decrease.
School enrollment requirements are an important tool for maintaining vaccination rates. In South Carolina, vaccination requirements generally follow the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices guidelines. That means rising seventh graders are required to have received one dose of Tdap which provides protection from bacterial infections such as tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (whooping cough).
Along with the Tdap vaccine, all children ages 11 and 12 should be vaccinated with a meningococcal conjugate vaccine. A booster dose is recommended at age 16. The HPV vaccination is also recommended beginning at age 11, with a booster dose in 6-12 months to protect against HPV infections that can cause cancer. Teens and young adults (16-23 years) also may be vaccinated with a serogroup B meningococcal vaccine.