We should be thankful to make it past five (commentary)

We should be thankful to make it past five (commentary)

IN 1900, one out of every five caskets in the U.S. contained the body of a child less than five years old.

In 2000, one out of every 100 caskets contained the body of a child who never got to celebrate his or her fifth birthday.

Most of the young deaths at the turn of the last century were due to accidents, severely premature births and birth defects that modern medicine could not correct. Most of the deaths in the early 1900s were due to infectious diseases.

The discovery of antibiotics in the 1940s, the development of vaccines in the '50s, the treatment of public drinking water beginning in 1910 and the widespread pasteurization of milk beginning also in the 1940s are the four main reasons for the change in life expectancy in the U.S. from roughly 47 years of age if you were born in 1900 to 77 years of age if you were born in 2000.

Having way too many young children die of infectious diseases, including foodborne and waterborne illnesses, really brings down the life expectancy for a country dramatically.

Doubt my word? Just stroll through an old cemetery. There are lots of tombstones for children with the same surname and ages of less than five years who died just days apart, perhaps because of smallpox, or maybe diphtheria, dysentery, typhoid or cholera.

So, why do I write this now?

Because way too often, when I read the discussions following an article or blog about foodborne illness, there are responses suggesting that we live in too sterile of an environment, so we have no natural defenses against foodborne pathogens.

Another will comment about how granddaddy lived to be 88 and drank raw milk and well water every day, building up immunity that today's kids don't have.

I will concede that there might be a grain of truth to these misguided claims. I say misguided because the fact that granddaddy lived to be 88 does not tell how many of his neighbor playmates died early as a part of that sobering statistic that one out of five deaths was a young child.

I say misguided because in order to develop immunity to salmonella, Escherichia coli, brucellosis or typhus, you had to survive the infection, which isn't so easy to do when you are a 30 lb. one-year-old child with little margin of error to survive dehydration due to diarrhea.

The grain of truth I concede is that exposure can build immunity. That is the rationale and science behind the vaccinations we give our children and the vaccines that we adults can get to prevent pneumonia, influenza and shingles, to name a few.

But, just like exposure to foodborne pathogens can be potentially hazardous to one's health instead of building immunity, some vaccines also can be hazardous and not without risk.

Most vaccines parents are encouraged to get for their kids use protein from the cell wall of a bacterium or virus or a killed microorganism. They might cause a fever and local irritation, but they will not cause infection with the organism.

The oral polio vaccine, on the other hand, is a live virus that can actually be spread by the child to an immune-compromised individual, such as a grandparent on chemotherapy, and cause serious infection.

Smallpox is another live vaccine that can cause inflammation of the heart muscle or an eye infection if one rubs the injection site and then the eye.

And, of course, there have been other very serious side effects even from the killed or attenuated organisms used in vaccines to build immunity such as febrile seizures, Guillain-Barre Syndrome and others.

I strongly believe in vaccines. The benefits far outweigh the risks.

I am dismayed that way too many parents opt not to have their child vaccinated for religious or other reasons, thus jeopardizing their classmates, neighbors and even me.

I don't want to be exposed to an adult version of E. coli O157:H7 to see if I can build immunity. That's much riskier than the vaccinations approved by the Food & Drug Administration after extensive clinical trials.

Even though modern medicine has tools to treat infectious diseases that were not around in 1900, I certainly don't want my two grandkids who are under five years of age to experience a foodborne illness so they can build immunity (if they survive).

I wish the naysayers would just admit that we have changed the way we raise animals and the way we slaughter and process them for human consumption and that the changes have come with risks that granddad was not exposed to.

Industry has done a good job of adjusting to these changes with new and more interventions to keep our food as safe and sterile as possible, but we can do better. We can vaccinate poultry for salmonella like the U.K. does, and we can vaccinate cattle for E. coli O157:H7.

We vaccinate our kids to prevent disease and even death. We should do the same to the animals raised for food.

That would be much safer for human health than trying to figure out the safe dose of exposure to a little E. coli to build resistance without causing disease or death.

*Dr. Richard Raymond is a medical doctor by training and a former undersecretary for food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Volume:85 Issue:11

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