The Truth About Vaccines
Vaccinations are one of the best ways to protect your family’s health and a triumph of modern medicine. Yet, some parents fear that vaccines are harmful. Dr. Teresa Holtrop, board president of the Michigan chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, sifts “vaxx” facts from fiction.
Is there any reason I shouldn’t get my child vaccinated?
Children with suppressed immune systems, such as those who’ve had an organ transplant or cancer treatments, are the only ones who should skip certain immunizations, Dr. Holtrop says. “Vaccines are safe. They protect the child. They protect the community,” she says.
Isn't proof of immunization required for enrollment in child care and school?
Yes, but most states allow parents to forgo vaccinations for their children by citing religious beliefs. Michigan is one of 16 states that also allows vaccination waivers for philosophical objections.
Since 2015, when Michigan began requiring parents to attend educational sessions at their local health departments to receive a nonmedical vaccination waiver, the number of waivers has dropped by about half, to around 3 percent, Dr. Holtrop says. However, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services warns that the state still has one of the highest waiver rates in the U.S., with some counties reporting up to 12 percent of schoolchildren unvaccinated.
Parents who choose not to vaccinate not only put their children at risk for serious disease, Holtrop says, but they also endanger vaccinated children. “Immunizations aren’t perfect,” Holtrop explains, noting that most childhood vaccines are 90 to 99 percent effective. “That’s why we need herd immunity.” When a high percentage of people in a community (the “herd”) are vaccinated, it’s difficult for diseases to spread. “If herd immunity drops to less than 85 percent, the risk of disease increases,” she says.
If vaccines are safe, why have more parents seemingly become “anti-vaxxers”?
It started in 1998, Dr. Holtrop says, when a small, now-discredited British study wrongly linked the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to autism. The study drew enormous media attention before it was retracted from The Lancet medical journal years later.
“It has caused immeasurable harm,” Dr. Holtrop says. “Once folks started questioning that, people got into conspiracy theories, and it mushroomed from there.”
Is there any evidence that vaccines cause autism?
There’s also no evidence linking vaccines to other health problems. AAP’s website, healthychildren.org, invites parents to read the research. (Click the “Safety & Prevention” tab, then select “Immunizations.”)
Make sure you’re protected too.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends:
- TDaP (tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis) vaccine once as an adult, if you didn’t get it as an adolescent.
- Flu vaccine yearly for all adults.
- Td (tetanus, diphtheria) booster every 10 years for adults.
- Other vaccines, depending on your situation. Talk to your doctor.
What about side effects?
As with all medicines, vaccines can cause side effects, which typically are mild. In rare cases, there can be a severe allergic reaction; those occur within a couple of days and no more frequently than with other medications. Dr. Holtrop, a physician since 1983, says she rarely has had a patient experience a severe reaction to a vaccine, and none since the 1990s, when they switched to a new DTaP vaccine.
The benefits of vaccinations far outweigh the risks, Dr. Holtrop adds. Millions of children have been vaccinated for more than 50 years. As a result, several serious illnesses have become rare in the U.S.
Is it OK to delay vaccinations?
“There is absolutely no benefit from spacing out the vaccines,” Dr. Holtrop says. “If anything, you’re putting your child at risk.”
I’m concerned that so many shots will overload my baby’s immune system.
That’s a common misconception, Dr. Holtrop says. It might sound gross, but your baby encounters thousands of germs daily. That’s good because they trigger your baby’s immune system and help fight illness. Even if your infant receives several vaccines at one doctor visit, that would be a small fraction of the germs her immune system routinely tackles at home.
Why do we still need vaccines?
Unfortunately, vaccine-preventable diseases are common in many parts of the world and still occur in the U.S. “With travel, it’s fairly easy to be exposed,” Dr. Holtrop says.
Immunization success may cause younger people to believe that vaccines are unnecessary. But Dr. Holtrop, who’s 62, remembers life before. As a child, she contracted measles, and polio disabled her godmother. During a mumps outbreak in the 1980s, one of Dr. Holtrop’s patients had to be hospitalized with brain swelling.
What if I've lost my child’s immunization card or missed some vaccines?
If your child was vaccinated in Michigan, a pediatrician can retrieve the record from the Michigan Care Improvement Registry. It’s not too late to get back on track with your children’s immunizations, and, often, they don’t have to repeat shots they’ve had.
Need to keep track of your child's immunizations?