Older generations can remember when a rite of passage for childhood was contracting illnesses common to elementary-age young people — measles, chickenpox, mumps and others. Children contracted these diseases from other students and friends. Thankfully, immunizations were developed and administered broadly. Today, adults also are encouraged to use vaccinations to prevent or keep in check illnesses such as various flu strains and even pneumonia.
Vaccinations proved themselves very effective, so parents and families welcomed them and were diligent in making sure their children were immunized. Evidence suggested that measles immunizations in the United States had been so successful as to effectively eradicate that particular childhood disease years ago.
But an outbreak of measles — particularly noted to be spreading among children visiting Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif. — is back. The disease is alive and well, and it has prompted health officials — pediatricians among them — to redouble efforts to get vulnerable children vaccinated throughout the country.
Reactions to the vaccination campaign have varied with most parents — by one estimate 90 percent — dutifully making sure their children are protected from diseases that once killed thousands of children a year.
However, a minor brouhaha has developed as some parents have opted not to have their youngsters exposed to the measles vaccine in particular and to vaccines in general.
Pediatrician Eric Ball, who practices in southern California, says, in his experience, the families skeptical of vaccines can be divided into two types.
“There are people who believe in grand conspiracies — that the whole medical community is trying to make money at the expense of their child,” he says. “They don’t really believe in science. They don’t believe in data, and no amount of discussion is going to really convince them.”
Ball says he sees other skeptical parents who are on the fence, not really convinced that vaccines are safe and effective. “We try to assess what their fears are, why they’re not vaccinating — what they’ve read, what they’ve heard. And then we try to dispel myths.”
“Some people don’t believe that illnesses like measles and pertussis are still out there,” says Benjamin Schwartz, M.D., of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. “So instead of focusing on the very significant risks of the disease, they focus on the very uncommon risks of the vaccine.”
Doctors acknowledge that some parents lose sight of the benefits of vaccination when rumors suggest that it can cause everything from SIDS to brain damage. Some rumors are totally unfounded; others have been refuted because reformulated vaccines have eliminated rumored even minor risks over the last several years.
By its very definition, vaccination involves exposing a healthy child to a weakened or dead virus. Experts insist that although no vaccine is 100 percent risk-free, the chances of major side effects from a shot are minuscule compared with the potential damage to a child’s health if he contracted the disease itself.
They also insist that immunization doesn’t protect just individual children; it protects the entire community. They say unvaccinated children and adults serve as a reservoir for infection, which they can then pass on to other susceptible individuals. That especially includes three groups: (1) the small percentage of immunized kids who don’t respond to a specific vaccination, (2) children who are behind on their vaccination schedules and (3) those who can’t be vaccinated because of medical problems. In addition, pregnant women and babies are also at risk.
One backlash to the decision of many families to avoid vaccinations for their children is that schools ask them not to send their unvaccinated youngsters to school and expose fellow students to risk. Other reports suggest some physicians’ offices have done the same.
It would not be surprising if churches — many with security and safety issues in place to put parents’ minds at ease — responded similarly to be sure they did not expose children to disease unnecessarily.
The U.S. has an enviable rate of success in eradicating what used to be common diseases that affected children, and much of the credit goes to constantly improving vaccines and aggressive immunization programs. God has given medical researchers and physicians the wisdom and ability to develop cures and deterrents that have made near-miraculous advances to the benefit of entire populations.
The evidence comes down most strongly on the side of the benefit of universal vaccinations, excusing only children who have other medical conditions and are deemed to be at risk if exposed to particular immunizations.
Because the risks of vaccinations for the rest are minuscule compared to the risk of contracting the disease itself, parental withholding of vaccines from children may put them and others at great risk of contracting diseases unnecessarily.
For the good of all, vaccinate.
Bill Webb is editor of Word & Way.