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Published: Saturday, 3/26/2005

A poke that works

THOSE immunizations against German measles, formally known as rubella, that health officials have visited on kids for more than 30 years, have worked, despite the tears and yelps of youngsters coast to coast.

Success, federal health officials say, is no reason for toddlers to stop getting them, at age 1 and again just before school starts.

The statistics are impressive. In 1969, when the rubella vaccine was invented by a scientist at Merck Institute for Vaccinology, there were close to 60,000 cases of the disease in this country. Most of the time it is not dangerous to those who get it, but it causes disastrous problems for 90 percent of the fetuses of infected pregnant women. By 2000, reported rubella cases in the U.S. had fallen to 176.

The riskiest time for fetuses is in the first trimester. Before vaccination newly pregnant women lived in fear that they might be exposed to children with measles.

That's because the disease causes some mothers to miscarry, some infants to be stillborn, and still others to suffer birth defects. Around the world some 100,000 cases of congenital rubella syndrome are reported each year, a 2002 survey of the Centers for Disease Control notes. Thanks to immunizations, however, this country had just 11 such cases in 2000 and 2001.

Public health officials fear that if they are too exuberant about the success of rubella inoculations, parents may grow lazy about getting their children immunized. But what the rest of us must remember is that good health requires constant vigilance. That's why we get the "wash your hands" messages every flu season.

Fetuses and the expectant mothers who carry them continue to be at risk without immunizations because people from other countries where inoculations are rarer can bring in the disease. Health professionals cite Mexico, where rubella remains an active malady.

The effectiveness of immunizations in wiping out disease over the past century is best exemplified by the eradication of smallpox and the near disappearance of polio except where ignorant Third World leaders discouraged vaccination.

The success of vaccines continues to encourage cancer and AIDS research, as well it should. It should also persuade us all to get immunized. Doctors point to flu shots and those that prevent Hepatitis B.

We live in wondrous times, medically speaking, but only if we take advantage.

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