Brendalee Flint did everything she could to keep her baby safe. She nourished her with breast milk; she gave her all the routine vaccines. But Flint never realized how much her daughter's health would depend on the actions of her friends, neighbors and even strangers.
By 15 months old, Flint's daughter, Julieanna Metcalf, was walking, exploring and even saying her first few words. Then one day in the bath, while fighting what seemed like an ordinary stomach bug, Julieanna became so weak and floppy that she couldn't hold up her head.
"She couldn't say 'Help me,' but her eyes were begging me to do something," says Flint, 35.
Flint rushed the baby to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with meningitis, a swelling of the lining of the brain, caused by a severe case of Hib, or Haemophilus influenzae type b. Julieanna was one of five children in Minnesota hospitalized with Hib in January 2008, the state's biggest outbreak since 1992.
Three of the other Minnesota children hospitalized for Hib were unvaccinated, including one who died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Experts worry that such outbreaks — along with mumps outbreaks on the East Coast and more than two dozen measles outbreaks around the country in 2008 — represent cracks in the country's protection against terrifying childhood diseases that were once virtually eradicated.
Parents who have never seen their children gasp for breath no longer fear these diseases and, in some cases, are delaying or skipping immunizations, says Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Many parents who reject vaccines do so because of the mistaken notions that they cause autism or overwhelm the immune system, Offit says.
That worries moms such as Flint, who learned that her daughter has a rare immune deficiency only after she contracted Hib. Because Julieanna doesn't respond to vaccines, she depends on other parents to keep germs out of circulation by vaccinating their kids, a phenomenon called "herd immunity."
Now, Flint and a growing number of parents as well as a handful of celebrities are speaking out about the human toll of infectious diseases and the consequences of refusing vaccinations.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion.
But, why do we let ignorant uneducated talk show hosts and celebrities dispense medical advice to gullible television viewers? Why are they allowed to campaign against vaccines and inoculations? That seems like practicing medicine without a license.
I wonder if Oprah or Jenny McCarthy or Bill Maher will contribute to the life time of medical bills and other support required by un-vaccinated kids damaged by avoidable disease on their advice.