Alarmingly, misinformation about vaccine safety has been spreading via anti-vaccination support groups on social media, films—and even the White House—that suggest a link between vaccination and autism.
Vaccines have been doubted since their invention. (Here is the complete history of vaccine hysteria, which is much older than you think—it goes all the way to 1796). But much of the thinking in today’s anti-vaccine movement can be traced to a 1998 paper by gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield published in the British medical journal The Lancet, which linked the rise of autism to the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine.
The paper was later shown to be based on fake data, and has since been disavowed by 10 of its 13 original authors. The Lancet even formally retracted the paper, but it was too late—the idea of the autism link had already taken hold.
Today, suspicion of childhood vaccination persists, despite the fact that the link to autism has been roundly disproven (see Cochrane’s systematic review of worldwide studies of the measles mumps rubella vaccine, which involved over 14 million children, and also the American Academy of Pediatrics’ 18-page document listing all the studies showing that getting vaccinated is not linked to autism or other neurological disorders.)
Here are the facts that every parent needs to know:
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Refusing To Vaccinate Can Have Deadly Consequences
As a result of parents who refuse to vaccinate their children, outbreaks have been popping up all over the country. “In areas where vaccine-hesitant families cluster, we’re seeing outbreaks of chicken pox, pertussis, and other transmissible diseases that could’ve been prevented,” says Dawn Nolt, M.D., M.P.H., a professor at the Division of Pediatric Infectious Disease at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland, Oregon.
Over the past four years, there have been at least three measles outbreaks—one in Texas and two in California, both home to robust anti-vaccine movements—and public health officials worry that bigger ones are in our future. In some private schools in Austin, Texas, 30 to 40% of the children are unvaccinated, according to Peter J. Hotez, M.D., Ph.D., a pediatrician at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Hotez and others worry that we may be on the verge of a potentially large measles outbreak.
Measles is a highly contagious and lethal disease. Just to give you an idea: the virus remains active in the air or on infected surfaces for up to 2 hours—you can catch it by walking into a room where a person with measles has been hours earlier. You can also catch it from someone who doesn’t yet know he has measles: it can be transmitted four days prior to the onset of the rash. Worldwide, it still kills around 130,000 children a year, as reported by the World Health Organization.
One reason people are hesitant to vaccinate their children is because they haven’t witnessed up-close the kind of suffering that these diseases can cause.
“If you don’t see it, you don’t believe it,” says Dr. Nolt. “People don’t see how devastating chicken pox, pertussis, and measles are, so it gives them a sense of security that these diseases aren’t in the world.”
These diseases can be lethal. Before the pertussis vaccine became widely available in the 1940s, about 200,000 children got sick with it each year in the U.S.; about 9,000 of these children died. Similarly, before the measles vaccination program started in 1963, an estimated 48,000 people in the U.S. were hospitalized with measles each year and around 400 people died of the disease.
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Your Kid’s Immune System Won’t Be Overwhelmed By A Vaccine
Nolt says that contrary to popular belief, a baby’s immune system is not “overwhelmed” by a vaccine. “Children encounter thousands of millions of germs every day. Getting a vaccine is just drop in the bucket,” says Nolt. “Even multiple doses given at one time is not going to overwhelm their immune system.” (Read more about how you can help your kids' immune system by supporting their beneficial microbes.)
It helps to have a basic understanding of how vaccination works.
When germs, such as bacteria or viruses, invade the body, they attack and multiply: an infection takes hold, causing illness. The immune system fights off disease-causing microbes, in the process learning to recognize the illness-causing germs, and how to produce the specific antibodies needed to defeat them, so the next time you’re exposed to those microbes it can take them down quickly, before an infection sets in. On average, it takes your immune system over a week to learn how to fight off a disease-causing microbe. (In the mean time, you’re sick).
A vaccine exposes your immune system to disease-causing microbes that have been killed or weakened so that they can’t cause illness, teaching your system how to fight that particular disease without actually contracting, say, diphtheria, which could otherwise overwhelm the immune system before your body can fight it off, causing severe health complications or death.
Because vaccine formulas have gotten more precise over the years, children today are actually exposed to fewer bacterial and viral components than they used to be. Thirty years ago, children received shots that protected against eight diseases and were exposed to more than 3,000 bacterial and viral proteins, the Washington Post reported recently. Today, even though children receive more vaccines, the total number of bacterial and viral components administered is only about 150.
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Vaccination Does Not Cause Autism
Thimerosal, which was once widely used as a vaccine preservative in the U.S. and elsewhere, is the mercury-containing compound that anti-vaccine activists say causes autism. However, 11 studies that the American Academy of Pediatrics cites show no link between thimerosal and autism.
Nonetheless, in 1999, the U.S. Public Health Service recommended removing thimerosal from vaccines as a precautionary measure. Since 2001, thimerosal has not been used in any childhood shots except for the multi-dose flu vaccine, according to Ian Branam, a press officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (Here are 10 foods that fight the flu.) Thimerosal was never used in the MMR vaccine. And childhood autism rates in the U.S. continue to increase since thimerosal was removed, which suggests that something else is to blame for our autism epidemic.
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What To Know About Spacing Out Shots
Most pediatricians recommend following the CDC’s latest schedule. “The schedule is updated every year,” explains Nolt. There are currently 10 vaccines recommended for children under 18 months (though some are multi-dose) but the most important are Pneumococcal (which protects against Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria, which can cause pneumonia, ear and sinus infections, meningitis, and a blood stream infection), and Hib (which protects against Haemophilus influenzae type b, which causes serious infections including bacterial meningitis).
If you’re wary about your baby getting several shots at once, you can talk to your pediatrician about spacing them out. Dr. Nolt does not recommend this, because the goal is to induce protection before 12 months, when your child is most vulnerable. Some shots, like Hib, require 2-3 booster shots over time, and spacing out shots prolongs the interval when your child is susceptible to serious infectious diseases. However, she would prefer a parent delay some shots than not vaccinate at all.
Hilary Andrews, a naturopathic physician with a private practice in Portland, Oregon, customizes immunization schedules for her patients. (In Oregon, naturopaths can administer vaccines.) “Every child comes with its unique risk factors towards infectious diseases, and its own protection,” says Andrews. If you cannot find an M.D. or N.D. in your area who is open to an alternative vaccine schedule, Andrews recommends Paul Thomas, M.D.’s The Vaccine- Friendly Plan, which walks you through how to talk to your pediatrician.
“A lot of books are either completely against vaccination or all-in with the CDC schedule. This is a resource for those who are what I consider the middle group,” Andrews says. Even then, parents should fully understand the risks involved in delaying each vaccine—again, talk to your child's doctor, don't blindly follow the book. Thomas suggests skipping the hepatitis b vaccine, for example, unless you, the mother, have hepatitis B—but babies can still get hepatitis B by being bitten by an infected person, by touching open cuts or sores of an infected person, or from food that was chewed (for a baby) by an infected person. Thomas also recommends taking a pass on the rotavirus series, as long as your family practices good hygiene, drinks clean water, and has access to health care. (Most babies with rotavirus infections can effectively be treated with antinausea drugs.)
However, even Thomas believes it’s very important that you vaccinate your child against both Haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib) and pertussis (DTaP), following the CDC schedule. He allows that some parents may prefer starting these shots at 3 months, as they do in certain European countries, or may want to give just one vaccine at a time—just know this will require a few extra visits to the pediatrician’s office.
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Know Where To Find Reliable Information
For more facts about vaccination, refer to the following organizations:
The American Academy of Pediatrics’s Immunization Page, which contains information for providers and parents.
The CDC’s Immunization Safety Office, which offers information about vaccine safety.
The Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia offers information for parents including “A Look at Each Vaccine,” which tells you why each vaccine is important for your child to get.
The Institute for Vaccine Safety, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health offers an independent assessment of vaccine safety.