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Risks in Medicine

Mist rises above a forest

The most common answer in medicine is, “It depends.” I’m often frustrated when Alison gives me that answer, but it’s for good reason. The human body is the most complex organism ever created and the potential for disorder is certain. Like a fingerprint, every body is different and so two patients receiving the exact same treatment may experience two opposite outcomes.

The National Institutes of Health admits that, “no vaccine is perfectly safe or effective.” That is to be expected, again, because of the differences in each of our bodies.

That being said, the approved and recommended vaccines are so because they have the best potential to be the most efficacious. Medicine is both a science and an art, both of which are researched, reviewed, revised, and honed by respected practitioners and institutions across the globe.

When Felicity was born and it was decided that she needed to be admitted to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, the attending physician, suspecting a diagnosis but lacking evidentiary support, started her on an aggressive course of antibiotics, just in case. There was a risk that she could become permanently deaf as a result. The greater risk was that she had an infection and, without treatment, would die. These are decisions that parents and caregivers must make routinely in medicine. What are the risks of a particular course and are they outweighed by the risks of not following a particular course?

To be sure, the diseases that we vaccinate against are lethal. We have not experienced them on a large scale as a society in the modern era because they have been eradicated for decades. An outbreak, then, presents a unique danger in that the medical community is part and parcel unexperienced in the practical treatment of these deadly diseases, though they are trained in the theoretical treatment. One needs only to look at the California Measles Outbreak of 2014-2015 to see the reality that an eradicated disease can return with serious consequences.