Health Matters: Another Look at Vaccinating Children
As a parent I have known fear. When my first daughter was born, she was the smallest human being I had ever seen. She was born three-and-a-half months early and weighed just under two pounds. When I held her for the first time, I worried that the pressure of my hands on her body would crush her. Above all, I did not want to harm her vulnerable body.
I see that same desire to protect when talking to vaccine-skeptical parents. Though they remain a minority in our society, their numbers are growing. In 2001, a Gallup survey indicated that 94 percent of Americans said it was extremely important or very important to vaccinate their children. By 2019, that number had dropped to 84 percent. Vaccine-hesitant parents, some of whom are good friends of mine, have common concerns and fears: Does my children really need all these shots? Is it safe for their tiny bodies? Will my child suffer serious injury or developmental delays from them?
Having skeptical friends has given me empathy for these concerned parents, but the scientific data is clear—the benefits of the vaccines greatly outweigh their risks. I once heard an emergency room physician say he was most looking forward to when his baby turned two months old so she could get her first vaccinations. During last year’s measles outbreak in California, another pediatrician I know was terrified that her infant would be exposed to measles before the baby was old enough to be vaccinated. Why do physicians believe so strongly in these shots? Because they’ve seen the difference vaccines can make.
Before the H. influenzae vaccine in1991, meningitis caused by H. influenzae affected 12,000 children each year, a thousand of whom died. The survivors had a 15- to 30-percent chance of developing hearing loss, mental retardation, seizure disorders, cognitive delays, or paralysis. After the Hib vaccination was introduced in 2000, Hib meningitis dropped by 99 percent. What used to be a routine part of pediatrician’s practices faded into the recesses of their memories.
Doctors know vaccinations have risks, but they believe the risks are small. Seat belts offer an instructive analogy. While wearing seat belts can cause harm, they are the best way to keep occupants safely in their vehicles and prevent injury and death from car crashes.
Similarly, for vaccines the benefits are very high and the risks, very low. A broad range of in-depth investigations have found no link between vaccines and developmental delays, including autism. And for the rare child who has an extreme allergic reaction, that event is typically treatable with an Epipen injection.
Controversies surrounding vaccinations appear to be related to something the Rand Corporation calls “truth decay” (rand.org/research/projects/truth-decay.html). Truth decay describes the increasing disagreement about facts and their interpretation, in that opinions are often presented as facts, leading to a blurred line between fact and opinion. Declining trust in formerly respected sources of information, such as government and media, is leading to people trusting their own experiences over fact.
When I talk parents about vaccines for their children, I tell them the scientific facts and I share my opinion as a medical provider and a father. I say this:
- I have given my children every vaccine I recommend to patients.
- I will not recommend vaccines in cases where it is not safe. Some children have conditions that do not allow them to safely receive vaccines. They rely on the rest of us to help decrease their chances of getting sick.
- Sometimes effects attributed to vaccination are not due to the shots. Human beings want the world to make sense, so we sometimes connect unrelated events.
- Vaccine controversy is the product of vaccine success. In the United States, we have largely forgotten the harms these diseases cause. Every 20 seconds, a child in the world dies from a vaccine-preventable disease. In some parts of the world, parents walk for entire days and wait in long lines to get vaccines.
- Vaccines are rigorously tested and are among the safest medical products we have; very few things in life are risk-free, but vaccines are very low risk.
If this has given you food for thought and you have questions about vaccines, please come in for an appointment. It’s never too late to start vaccinating your child.
Paul Hupp is a physician assistant at MCHC Health Centers—a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental and behavioral health care to people in Lake and Mendocino Counties.