From the time they can barely walk, children learn that a trip to the doctor’s office may easily end with shots. Amidst your child’s nervous cries, parents often question whether vaccines are the right choice. “Are they safe? Are we giving too many too fast? Are they even necessary?”
This hesitancy is understandable — it’s your child and you should ask questions. But over the past few decades, pediatricians have seen a rising number of parents forgoing vaccinations. They’ve heard stories about the side effects, and whispers about their safety. Why risk it when these diseases are all but extinct, right?
With misinformation frequently circulating in our communities, parents may struggle with the decision to vaccinate, unsure what they should believe. To aid this decision, we’ve chosen to expose the fiction and highlight the truth about vaccines – no alternative facts allowed.
The bottom line is that the vaccines we use today are incredibly safe. They undergo years of testing before they’re released for use and are continuously monitored once they’re on the market. Anyone can submit concerns about vaccine safety to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, assuring that any unforeseen complications do not continue unchecked. These extensive safety protocols have made serious complications incredibly rare. The risk of a severe reaction for most vaccines is less than one in a million. In comparison, the risk of death for infants with whooping cough is one in a hundred, a 10,000 percent increase.
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Unfortunately, despite their safety, many myths persist. One of the most common is that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism. This idea was first proposed in 1998 by a British physician whose claims were rapidly disproven. When he was found accepting money from lawyers suing the vaccine manufacturers, he was accused of fraud and banned from practicing medicine. In the almost 20 years since his paper was published, the medical community has invested tremendous resources to evaluate the vaccine’s safety. The results are unanimous — there is absolutely no link between the MMR vaccine and autism.
The doubt and uncertainty surrounding vaccines is undeserved, but more importantly, it obscures the fact that vaccines save lives — two to three million every year, according to the World Health Organization. Diseases that once ran rampant in our communities are now so uncommon in the United States that most physicians have never seen actual cases.
However, since these diseases are so rare, some question whether the vaccines are still necessary. Experience has shown us that the answer is a resounding yes. Despite their elimination in the United States, these diseases are common in other countries and will return if enough people remain unvaccinated. Measles was successfully eliminated from the United States in 2000, but low vaccination rates have caused large outbreaks in recent years. In Venezuela, vaccine shortages resulted in 324 cases of diphtheria last year, claiming the life of a 9-year-old girl. This deadly disease hadn’t been seen within that country in decades but is now a major public health concern there.
Even if you personally think that vaccines are unnecessary, there are other reasons to vaccinate. Vaccines protect not only the people who receive them, but also the vulnerable members of our society who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons. This is known as herd immunity; when enough of the population is vaccinated, the disease can no longer spread, protecting those at greatest risk. However, for this protection to work, almost everyone must be vaccinated — about 95 percent of the population.
Infants, cancer patients, pregnant women and the elderly are all protected when everyone is vaccinated, and suffer the consequences when they’re not.
Currently, Miami-Dade County has some of the lowest vaccination rates in the state with just 91.6 percent of our kindergarten students fully vaccinated, and 90.8 percent of our seventh-grade students. This issue is by no means unique to Florida; schools everywhere are struggling to ensure their students are vaccinated.
We know that vaccines are the single best way of protecting our children from preventable diseases, but as a community, we’ve fallen short. We need to partner with parents, schools, pediatricians and the health department so that every child is immunized and these deadly diseases are finally eliminated.
As school approaches, we urge parents to make sure their child is fully vaccinated. For those wishing to learn more, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevent has reliable information available online, and your child’s pediatrician is also an excellent resource.
We know that parents only want what’s best for their child, and figuring out just what that is isn’t an easy task. Make use of the credible evidence available and empower yourself with knowledge when deciding whether to vaccinate. Your child’s health depends on it.
Sarah Hatfield, is a candidate M.D./MPH for the Class of 2020 at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, and Lisa Gwynn, D.O., is associate division director of general pediatrics at the University of Miami Health System. For more information, visit UHealthSystem.com/patients/pediatrics.