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I’m With Stupid – March 2, 2012

by Todd Hartley

OK, before we get started with this week’s column, I have a very important disclaimer: I am not a doctor – not even close. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, I’ve never even stayed at a Holiday Inn Express. I’m really just an idiot who spouts off about things each week because people allow me to. So keep in mind as you read this that I have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about.

That being said, when I’m not pulling in money hand over fist as a humor columnist, I do a lot of medical writing for a children’s health website. On the surface, this might seem to give me some insight into medical conditions, but since I write more than 50 health-related articles a year, the facts behind each tend not to stay in my brain for very long, rendering me no more informed than anyone else.

In the course of my medical writing, I recently wrote a series of articles on hepatitis, which prior to a couple of weeks ago I had no idea was a liver disease. (See? I told you I’m an idiot.) In doing my research for these articles, I learned a fact that seems, to my limited intellect, somewhat questionable.

There are, as most people smarter than me know, three main types of hepatitis in America: A, B and C. Of these, C is considered the most damaging, followed by B and then A. Doctors recommend that all children get vaccinated against hepatitis B at birth, and there’s a good reason for this: hepatitis B, which typically isn’t very serious, can sometimes lead to liver damage or cirrhosis that could potentially be life-threatening.

Sadly, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C, but there is one for hepatitis A, and doctors recommend that kids be given this inoculation at birth as well. That sounds reasonable enough, doesn’t it? But let’s take a closer look at the facts behind this recommendation, a discussion of which I feel is relevant to the national debate on health care in general.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 70 percent of kids under age 6 who contract the hepatitis A virus will be asymptomatic, meaning they won’t seem sick in any way. When kids with the hepatitis A virus do get sick, the flu-like symptoms are generally mild and typically clear up within a couple of months, causing no long-term complications. And once someone has recovered, they will be immune to hepatitis A for the rest of their lives.

Now, I’m not going to go all Michele Bachmann on you and claim that vaccines give kids gingivitis or anything like that, but I do question the wisdom of giving everyone vaccines against a disease that really isn’t a big deal. I mean, obviously, it would be nice to not feel crappy for a couple of months, but by denying ourselves the chance to strengthen our immune systems against a disease, aren’t we actually making ourselves weaker as a result? (That’s not a rhetorical question; I really don’t know the answer.)

Then there’s the price of the vaccines, which often require an expensive doctor’s consultation that can make them cost as much as $300. Sure, that’s not terribly steep, but when multiplied by the approximately 4 million kids born in America each year, it adds up and is yet another factor in the outrageously high cost of health care in this country. Yes, insurance usually covers the cost for each individual, but if you think insurance companies don’t pass those costs on to us, you’re dumber than me.

In 1989, a high-water mark before the vaccine was widely used, there were less than 40,000 reported cases of hepatitis A in the U.S. That works out to a rate of less than .016 percent of the population. And virtually none of those 40,000 people who didn’t have other pre-existing liver conditions died as a result of the disease. In fact, more recently, the CDC reported a total of zero deaths from hepatitis A from 1999-2009.

Now, I’m not opposed to vaccines. Certainly, I’m quite happy to be vaccinated against polio and smallpox. But there’s a part of me that feels like the more we vaccinate ourselves against everything, the less prepared our immune systems will be when something new comes along. Is this actually the case? I don’t know, but I’d love it if someone was able to tell me.

Just make it quick, though, because I’ve moved on to something else, and in a week I’ll forget everything I pretended to know about hepatitis.

Todd Hartley recommends taking two pills and calling in sick to work.

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