Worried about vaccine side effects? Read on for advice on becoming better informed …
“Pool Closed: Polio Alert.” “No Sunday School: Measles Epidemic.” Most parents today haven’t felt the chill of fear that swept through communities a generation or two ago when such signs were commonly posted. Thanks to mass immunization funded by public health care, parents can now protect their newborns against once common illnesses like polio and measles. However, many of these viruses still kill children in underprivileged countries only a plane ride away.
Recently, focus has shifted from the consequences of the disease to the risks associated with the vaccine, making some North American parents still hesitate to vaccinate their babies. Scientific research that distinguishes true vaccine side effects from unrelated, chance occurrences has become crucial for parents to make educated choices.
Some parents worry vaccines reduce the body’s ability to fight other infections. When the National Network for Immunization Information at Vanderbilt University surveyed 1600 U.S. parents last year, 25 percent believed that too many vaccines weaken a person’s immune system. Almost a quarter of those polled felt children receive an unhealthy number of vaccines. Using an ascending scale of 1 – 10 to rate their fears about the side effects of routine vaccination, all circled number three or four.
“Vaccines do not decrease one’s natural immunity against disease anymore than the wearing of seat belts makes cars more likely to get hit by other cars,” says Robert M. Jacobson, M.D., interim chair in the Department of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine at the Mayo Clinic. “Vaccines safely mimic the stimulation we get from the actual disease. Our bodies undergo hundreds of interactions a day through encounters with common germs.”
Donna Wright in Cookeville, worried about vaccinating her child after reading information from a website. “I spoke with our pediatrician and asked a lot of questions about the risks I’d read about,” she says. “He explained what could happen to my child if I chose not to immunize and supplied me with facts about the risks.” She now feels vaccination provides a safe way to protect her children from preventable disease.
“Parents need to educate themselves,” says Mara Williams of Ontario, Canada. “Some organizations present very biased information that scare parents into withholding vaccines. Sensationalism works, but people forget or don’t know what an iron lung is or how quickly whole families can die from an outbreak of measles or diphtheria.”
Dr. Jacobson says information provided by people who blame bad events on vaccines is usually biased at best. “While those individuals may be well-meaning and their stories may be touching, they may not have enough information to evaluate even their own situation correctly, much less yours.” “The Internet is not policed by scientists, educators or even trustworthy editors,” Jacobson says, adding, “While some websites have been established by responsible companies that stick to proven facts, others are temporary soapboxes from which people spout opinion and hearsay.”
He urges parents to balance what they read on the Internet with information from a doctor, government organization or well-documented scientific study. “If you troll the Internet for information, visit sites like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Immunization Action Coalition that offer printed and Internet material.” A drug company may offer a very different picture than an advocate group, and claims may be backed up with sketchy scientific statistics.
Opting Out of Vaccines
“Just a decade ago, when vaccination rates fell, we saw 55,000 cases of measles in the U.S. (mainly in children younger than age five), more than 11,000 hospitalizations and 125 deaths,” says Bruce Gellin, M.D., M.P.H. executive director of the National Network for Immunization Information. “Because of increased vaccination rates, there were fewer than 100 cases in each of the last three years.”
A parent-run website, the National Vaccine Information Centre founded in 1982, actively opposes vaccinations. This site, short on science and long on inflammatory rhetoric, claims vaccines are linked to allergies, autism, juvenile diabetes and attention deficit disorder as well as the AIDS epidemic and sudden infant death syndrome. Pictures of injured and deceased children, family testimonials and junk science shock and terrify many uninformed parents who visit the website.
Occasionally, researchers have published articles supporting theories about vaccine and chronic illness; however, when other researchers attempt to duplicate their results (the test of good research), they often cannot. Two individual studies published in the New England Journal of Medicine conclude that no link exists between vaccines and increased autoimmune problems among those vaccinated. Instead a July 7, 1999, JAMA article found that individuals who declined vaccination for measles were 35 times more likely to contract the disease than those who received the vaccine. And this risk spills over into the community at large.
Problems connected with older vaccines fuel fears today. Side effects of an earlier version of the pertussis whole cell vaccine prompted passage of the “National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act” in 1986, which created a “Federal Vaccine Injury Compensation Program” in 1988. Rotashield, a vaccine for childhood diarrhea, was pulled off the market in 1999 after one year because it caused dangerous bowel obstruction in infants. The CDC sponsors the “Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System,” which processes complaints about vaccines.
“Every vaccine-in fact, every medical procedure-has some risk associated with it,” Dr. Gellin says. “However, the risk of an adverse event from a vaccine is minuscule when compared with the odds that a child who isn’t vaccinated could be seriously harmed by an infectious disease.”
The consequences of ignoring safe and effective immunizations are real and can be lethal. Vaccines on rare occasions do cause side effects, but in the final analysis, vaccines represent far less risk than the diseases they prevent.
As Kelly Baker says, “I don’t want my child to be the one in 3 million” who has a bad reaction to a vaccine. “But I also don’t want mine to be the one in 10 that dies if they get the disease.”
Juila Rosien is a freelance writer.
National Network for Immunization Network
99 Canal Center Plaza, Ste. 210
Alexandria, VA 22314
877-341-6644 • immunizationinfo.org/index.cfm
The American Academy of Pediatrics
141 Northwest Point Blvd.
Elk Grove Village, IL 60007-1098
847-434-4000 • aap.org
Immunization Action Coalition
1573 Selby Ave., Ste. 234
St. Paul, MN 55104
651-647-9009 • immunize.org
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
1600 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30333
800-311-3435 • cdc.gov