Yes, they can be. Infection from many vaccine-preventable diseases can lead to complications that can cause permanent damage to organs and limbs, or even death in children. While some infectious diseases are more dangerous than others, all pose the risk of serious, irreversible damage to a child. It’s impossible to predict how your child will be affected by a disease until they are infected – and at that point, some diseases have no treatment or cure.
The following is a list of complications from vaccine-preventable diseases:
Rubella (German measles)
In young children, rubella is usually mild, with few noticeable symptoms. They may have a fever and a sore throat. Adults are more likely to have a headache, pink eye, and general discomfort one to five days before the rash appears. Adults also tend to have more complications, including sore, swollen joints and, less commonly, arthritis, especially in women. A brain infection called encephalitis is a rare but serious complication that can affect adults with rubella. However, the most serious consequence from rubella infection is the harm it can cause a pregnant woman’s baby.
Pregnant women who are infected with rubella virus also expose their babies. This can cause serious birth defects such as heart problems, hearing and vision loss, intellectual disability, and liver or spleen damage. Serious birth defects are more common if a woman is infected early in her pregnancy, especially in the first 12 weeks. Getting rubella infection during pregnancy can also cause a miscarriage or premature delivery.
Pertussis (whooping cough)
The disease is most dangerous for babies and young children. From 2004 through 2009, there were 121 deaths from whooping cough reported in the U.S. Babies 3 months old and younger accounted for 110 of them.
More than half of babies younger than 1 year who get the disease need care in the hospital. About one out of five babies and children with whooping cough will get pneumonia (a serious lung infection). Whooping cough can also cause seizures (jerking or staring) and brain damage.
About 30% of measles cases develop one or more complications, including:
- Pneumonia, which is the complication that is most often the cause of death in young children.
- Ear infections occur in about one in 10 measles cases, and permanent loss of hearing can result.
- Diarrhea is reported in about 8% of cases.
These complications are more common among children under 5 years of age and adults over 20 years old.
Even in previously healthy children, measles can be a serious illness requiring hospitalization. As many as one out of every 20 children with measles gets pneumonia, and about one child in every 1,000 who get measles will develop encephalitis. This is an inflammation of the brain that can lead to convulsions, and can leave the child deaf or mentally retarded. For every 1,000 children who get measles, one or two will die from it. Measles also can make a pregnant woman have a miscarriage, give birth prematurely, or have a low-birth-weight baby. While measles is almost gone from the United States, it still kills nearly 200,000 people each year around the world.
Most people with mumps recover fully. However, mumps can occasionally cause complications, and some of them can be serious. Complications may occur even if a person does not have swollen salivary glands and are more common in people who have reached puberty.
Complications of mumps can include:
- Inflammation of the testicles (orchitis) in males who have reached puberty, which rarely leads to sterility
- Inflammation of the brain (encephalitis) and/or tissue covering the brain and spinal cord (meningitis)
- Inflammation of the ovaries (oophoritis) and/or breasts (mastitis) in females who have reached puberty
- Temporary or permanent deafness
Complications from the flu can include bacterial pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections, dehydration, and worsening of chronic medical conditions such as congestive heart failure, asthma, or diabetes.
Flu is unpredictable and its severity can vary widely from one season to the next depending on many things, including which flu viruses are spreading, how much flu vaccine is available, when vaccine is available, how many people get vaccinated, and how well the flu vaccine is matched to flu viruses that are causing illness. Between 1976 and 2006, seasonal estimates of flu-associated deaths in the United States ranged from a low of about 3,000 to a high of about 49,000 people.
Certain people are at greater risk for serious complications if they get the flu. This includes older people, young children, pregnant women, people with certain health conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, or heart disease), and persons who live in facilities like nursing homes.
Myocarditis (an infection of the heart), polyneuritis (widespread inflammation of the nerves), and airway obstruction are common complications of respiratory diphtheria. Death occurs in 5-10% of respiratory cases. Complications and deaths occur less frequently from cutaneous diphtheria.
Complications stemming from tetanus infection are bone fractures and abnormal heart rhythm. Death occurs in about 10-20% of cases, with the highest rates among older people.
Hepatitis A can sometimes cause liver failure and death, although this is rare and occurs more commonly in persons 50 years of age or older and persons with other liver diseases, such as hepatitis B or C.
About 15-25% of people with chronic hepatitis B develop serious liver conditions, such as cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) or liver cancer. Even as the liver becomes diseased, some people still do not have symptoms, although certain blood tests for liver function might begin to show some abnormalities.
Meningococcal meningitis is very serious and can be fatal. In fatal cases, deaths can occur in as little as a few hours. In nonfatal cases, permanent disabilities can include hearing loss and brain damage.
Pneumococcal disease can be fatal. In some cases, it can result in long-term problems, like brain damage, hearing loss, and limb loss.
Between 3% and 6% of cases are fatal, with up to 20% of surviving patients suffering permanent hearing loss or other long-term complications. Permanent brain damage occurs in 10% to 30% of survivors.
Rotavirus is the leading cause of severe diarrhea in infants and young children worldwide. Globally, it causes more than half a million deaths each year in children younger than 5 years of age.
Rotavirus was also the leading cause of severe diarrhea in U.S. infants and young children before the rotavirus vaccine was introduced for U.S. infants in 2006. Prior to that, almost all children in the U.S. were infected with rotavirus before their 5th birthday. Each year in the U.S. in the pre-vaccine period, rotavirus was responsible for more than 400,000 doctor visits, more than 200,000 emergency room visits, 55,000 to 70,000 hospitalizations, and 20 to 60 deaths in children younger than 5 years of age.
Complications from chickenpox can occur, but they are not as common in otherwise healthy people who get the disease. People who may have more severe symptoms and may be at high risk for complications include infants, adolescents, adults, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems because of illness or medications; for example:
People with HIV/AIDS or cancer
Patients who have had transplants
People on chemotherapy, immunosuppressive medications, or long-term use of steroids
Serious complications from chickenpox include dehydration, pneumonia, bleeding problems, infection or inflammation of the brain (encephalitis, cerebellar ataxia), bacterial infections of the skin and soft tissues in children including Group A streptococcal infections, bloodstream infections (sepsis), toxic shock syndrome, bone infections, and joint infections.
Some people with serious complications from chickenpox can become so sick that they need to be hospitalized. Chickenpox can also cause death. Some deaths from chickenpox continue to occur in healthy, unvaccinated children and adults. Many of the healthy adults who died from chickenpox contracted the disease from their unvaccinated children.
For most people infected with the polio virus, few complications will arise. However, for those who suffer paralysis from infection, permanent disability and death are serious possibilities.
Prior to the eradication of the smallpox virus, there were two clinical forms of the disease. Variola major is the severe and most common form of smallpox, with a more extensive rash and higher fever. There are four types of variola major smallpox: ordinary (the most frequent type, accounting for 90% or more of cases); modified (mild and occurring in previously vaccinated persons); flat; and hemorrhagic (both rare and very severe). Historically, variola major has an overall fatality rate of about 30%; however, flat and hemorrhagic smallpox usually are fatal. Variola minor is a less common presentation of smallpox, and a much less severe disease, with death rates historically of 1% or less.