A nurse delivered a vaccine to a 1-year-old baby at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU. While vaccines carry risks for pets and humans, they’ve helped combat diseases and raise life expectancy.

As veterinarians, we build on the foundation laid by the previous generation. The older generation of veterinarians is passing; locally, we had Abe Linder, John Morgan and Larry Winters, to name a few. These doctors used treatment protocols that we never see today. They saw the advent of antibiotics and vaccines. In the face of today’s anti-vaccine movement, I would like to give a veterinarian’s viewpoint on the subject.

I’m sure that there are a number of people reading this who remember the parvo outbreak that we had here 20-plus years ago (there are still areas where this virus is a real problem). When we first saw this virus in our canine population, it was a devastating and deadly disease. We felt lucky to save half of the dogs we saw that were ill. As the outbreak continued, there were developments for a vaccine that helped to prevent the disease. Of course, nature laughed at us and new strains evolved. We now have effective vaccines and most veterinarians do not see many cases of parvo.

Up until World War II, the issue was rabies — a 100% deadly disease once symptoms show. This was our first real vaccine success, practically eliminating the disease in domestic animals. In fact, we have been so successful in this country in eliminating rabies that, if a person contracts rabies, it is national news. In other countries with lower vaccine rates, there is a large human toll. India alone has had about 60,000 people die from rabies annually. How many die in other less-developed countries that are unreported? We can only guess. There is some speculation that the adjuvant in the vaccine might cause a cancer, but there are no studies that show a cause and effect. Considering the alternative, who would prefer that we discontinue our vaccine protocol?

In Richmond, when I began practicing, we had a terrible problem with feline leukemia and feline AIDS. As we trapped and neutered stray cats, we also humanely euthanized those incurable felines. This, along with a vaccine for feline leukemia, stopped the spread of these two diseases. We now see very few cases in the trap-neuter-release communities. Yes, there was also concern that the leukemia vaccine caused a specific cancer (that has been well-studied and shown not to be cause and effect with the vaccine) now known as “injection site sarcoma.” I would still prefer to have the healthy population that we now have versus the illness and suffering of before.

The news agencies report on “herd immunity”; this is a well-documented veterinary phenomena where we vaccinate an entire herd of farm animals.

There are always individuals for whom a vaccine is ineffective. They are unable to mount the proper antibodies due to immune compromise at the time of vaccination for a variety of reasons.

What we have found is that if 85% to 95% of a population had effective vaccinations, the remaining few were protected from the disease because it could not spread through the population; thus they were in effect “islands” and did not contract the disease. Think about Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii, where rabies is unheard of in the animal populations.

The United Kingdom now has a large percentage of unvaccinated pets (up to 32% by some measurements). This is an epidemic waiting to happen. Great Britain is rabies-free, so the outbreak will most likely be canine and feline distemper (in my experience, these are almost always fatal).

Now we see the outbreaks on the human side of medicine. People are not getting their children vaccinated. We are falling below the herd immunity level. When I was young, childhood illnesses included many of the diseases for which we now have vaccines. Unfortunately, there seems to be a group amnesia to the suffering these illnesses caused. High fevers can cause brain damage, heart damage or death. Many diseases cause longterm health issues. Some people are worried about vaccine reactions. Vaccine reactions are minimal due to the purification processes now used.

We no longer use entire killed organisms in our vaccines; there are specific proteins that are used to alert, arm and strengthen the immune system so that a response to the organism will keep the disease at bay.

This has mitigated the reactions to vaccines. And please don’t get me started on the autism scare. That study has been completely debunked as junk science.

In my career, the life expectancy for dogs has risen from about 7 years to more than 11 and for cats to more than 12. Considering the risks when children and pets get these diseases versus the vaccine, why would anyone choose to place their children and pets at risk?

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Dr. J.L. Bayer has practiced in Richmond since 1996 and purchased Patterson Veterinary Hospital in 2013. He worked with Richmond Animal Control to stop dogfighting and animal abuse, helping to raise these offenses to felony charges. Contact him at

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