Because vaccines only work if the majority is vaccinated - this is known as 'herd immunity' - vaccination has snowballed into an enormous, increasingly divisive issue with everyone from Jenny McCarthy to President Obama taking a side. To get the facts, we interviewed Dr. Richard Besser, ABC News' Chief Health and Medical Editor.
1. What would you say to parents who worry that their children are receiving too many vaccines?
Dr. Richard Besser: As a Pediatrician, I spend a lot of time talking with parents about vaccines. We talk about what each vaccine is designed to prevent and why they are given when they are. There is nothing that I do as a pediatrician that has more proven health value than vaccination so I take as much time as is needed to help parents understand the issues. I've been in practice long enough that I've seen many of the diseases that are now uncommon due to the impact of vaccinations. Each vaccine represents a triumph of science over disease. While clearly we need more effective vaccines for some diseases like influenza, the value of vaccination is not in question medically.
2. Is there such a thing as "too many vaccines"? If so, is there a better schedule than the ones currently offered?
Dr. Besser: As a Pediatrician and public health professional, I can't imagine what is meant by "too many vaccines". Each disease for which we vaccinate at one time injured or killed many people. A better question would be, what are some diseases for which we lack effective vaccines and what is being done to tackle these problems? Imagine what the world would be like if we had effective vaccines against HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria? Millions of lives would be saved.
The immune system is continually being challenged by exposure to foreign substances in the environment. The additional exposure from vaccines is minuscule in comparison to everything else our immune system is seeing.
We vaccinate against diseases early in life to make sure that children are protected for the maximum time possible. Some vaccines cannot be given in the first few months or year of life because they are not as effective at that time. The measles vaccine is a good example of a vaccine that is not very effective in the first six months due to maternal antibodies, protective factors from the mother. By one year of age these factors have reached levels low enough so that the measles vaccine works.
The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices provides the CDC (Center of Disease Control) with recommendations on the vaccine schedule. They meet several times a year to review the schedule and each year a new schedule is released, often with minor modifications.
I do not recommend a delayed vaccination schedule since this will increase the amount of time that a child is at risk for a disease and for some children, may increase the chance that they are not fully vaccinated.
3. Should parents be concerned that there are too many vaccines in a short period of time?
Dr. Besser: There are no adverse health impacts from giving vaccines on the current schedule. A child's immune system is more than up to the task. Vaccinating your child fully and on time is a wonderful thing for a parent to do for their child.
4. How would you respond to parents who believe that children can fight the disease for which there are vaccines with "natural immunity"?
Dr. Besser: Unfortunately, you don't have to look far to see the pain and suffering caused by the diseases for which we now have vaccines. Measles still kills more than 100,000 children each year. Before vaccination, polio left more than half a million people paralyzed every year. I've cared for many children left deaf or otherwise damaged from meningitis. One of the challenges in public health is to maintain support for vaccination programs as the number of disease cases go down. When you no longer see ill children, it can be easy to become complacent, to question why we vaccinate at all. The problem is that once you stop vaccinating, the diseases come back. We are seeing that in the United States and Europe with respect to measles.
5. What information would you offer to convince parents that vaccines do not cause autism?
Dr. Besser: The science on this is very strong. Vaccines do not cause autism. Unfortunately, there was much damage done to the confidence in vaccines by a fraudulent medical paper that was public in the British journal, The Lancet. The article was subsequently retracted.
In conclusion, Dr. Besser, while mindful of parental concerns, was emphatic that vaccines were an absolute necessity if we are to prevent the crippling childhood diseases and tragic deaths that wreaked havoc on our parents' and grandparents' generation.
That being said: a seemingly uniquely American debate continues, framed as a fight between individual rights versus the rights of a society. Naturally, we Americans loathe relinquishing our freedoms. However, the right to cherry-pick our children's vaccines (or simply opt out of them all) cannot take precedence over the rights of those needing protection. We hope that by providing information, children will not be denied the vaccines they desperately need to lead healthy lives - a goal that surely all parents can agree on.
Will you vaccinate your kids? No? Tell us why. Tweet us @wewomenUSA.
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