Vaccines save lives; pure and simple. Side effects are minimal, and costs are minimal.
So why don’t we use them more often? I have no idea.
Seventy years ago parents lived in fear that their child might be the next one in the iron lung, being treated for poliomyelitis.
Then, in 1956, the polio vaccine was approved by the Food & Drug Administration, one of the most important developments ever in public health.
Vaccines for diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, measles, mumps, rubella, influenza, chicken pox, shingles, HPV and hepatitis followed.
At the turn of the last century, entering the 1900s, one out of every 10 caskets was occupied by a child less than five years of age.
Entering this century that number was one out of a hundred, the drop being mostly due to vaccines preventing fatal illnesses and antibiotics.
When I was a practicing country doc, every child entering kindergarten had to have been vaccinated against most of those viral illnesses listed above. Today the number of kids entering kindergarten that have not been vaccinated by parents’ choice is in the double digits.
It can’t be because of cost as the federal government funds over 50% of vaccinations through its Vaccines for Children (VFC) program.
Let’s turn this conversation into one about E. coli O157:H7 and the approved vaccines that could be used to help prevent human illness from those bacteria.
E. coli O157:H7 used to be called the “Hamburger Disease” but I think, with better epidemiology tools such as PFGE and whole sequence genome testing, green leafy vegetables have taken over as the leading contributor of infections by those bacteria.
Four, maybe five, outbreaks from Romaine lettuce in just the last two years and in every outbreak a cattle feedlot was located nearby.
Other not so uncommon sources besides ground beef include spinach, sprouts, raw milk, unpasteurized apple juice, other lettuces and coleslaw.
As Nancy Donley, past Chair of S.T.O.P. (Safe Tables Our Priority), has said; “If you look long enough and hard enough to find the source of any E. coli O157 outbreak, you will eventually bump into a cow.”
If you read the promotions by the pharmaceutical companies that have a Food & Drug Administration-approved vaccine, some claim that the number of E. coli O157:H7 shedding cattle are reduced by 85% with vaccination.
A Kansas State University study involving 17,000 cattle in feedlots showed a reduction of 50% of cattle shedding E. coli and it also showed that two injections vs. the approved number of three produced similar results and saved 33% of the cost to the producer.
So, vaccination for E. coli is definitely not a cure all, but it is another factor among many, such as hot steam carcass rinses and lactic acid sprays in the slaughter plants and E. coli probiotic sprays in the pens on live animals that could decrease our exposure.
But, unlike the other tools available at slaughter plants, vaccines would also reduce the environmental risks of exposure to fecal material emanating from feed lots and ending up through various means in vegetable fields.
I always hear that cost, and who bears the cost, is the reason feed lot cattle are not vaccinated except when participants in another study.
But I have a proposal to circumvent that argument.
Three doses cost about $10, but Kansas State says we could do this with two.
39 million cattle go to slaughter every year in the U.S. and that includes spent dairy cows that would not necessarily be vaccinated in a nationwide program.
So let’s just say that at $10 per head, the maximum nationwide cost would be under $390 million.
But we have 330 million people living in the U.S., not counting those undocumented workers in the animal agriculture industry and other service industries.
So, simple math says the cost is about $1 per U.S. citizen; in other words, dirt cheap.
The cost of the VFC is in the billions of dollars. Add three hundred million dollars more to vaccinate all feed lot cattle and the Office of Management and Budget would hardly notice the bump.
We have wiped out Smallpox with vaccines, and nearly eliminated polio from this Earth. Maybe we could eliminate E coli O157:H7?
The Center for Disease Control & Prevention estimates the VFC program prevents 21 million illnesses per year.
That number could be even higher if they provided the E coli O157:H7 vaccine to feedlots.
BTW, when the polio vaccine was approved, parents were so excited that in my small town that school buses lined up outside my grade school to transport us down to the local clinic to get our shot.
I missed one of the greatest moments in public health history, not because I didn’t get on that bus, but because when they stuck that needle in Linda J.’s arm right in front of me I passed out.
So, they vaccinated me before I woke up so I would not do it again.
Thank goodness my next booster dose was contained in a sugar cube.