Vaccines have been our best line of defense against deadly illnesses for more than 200 years. And yet, they remain a hot button issue in the 21st Century. This has parents wondering why they’re so controversial and whether they’re actually safe.
The main reason vaccines are still subject to debate is that there are incredibly strong opinions on either side of the issue. With social media fanning the flames, there’s a raft of incorrect information circulating, leading to fear-based choices. With recent measles outbreaks in the news, the vaccine debate is once again front and center. The bottom line is that vaccines have been proven safe and effective at protecting public health and keeping individual children healthy. However, vaccines are an individual decision made by families. Our practice has shown us that when parents get good information, they usually see why vaccines are so important, both for their own children and for public health. As we look to educate our families, understanding and respect are key.
What Are the Consequences of Not Vaccinating?
Recent measles outbreaks in the news have many parents reconsidering their decisions not to vaccinate because it takes the issue from theoretical to real world. Vaccines protect everyone from dangerous diseases by creating what is known as “herd immunity.” This means that even people who can’t be vaccinated for health reasons are protected when enough of the population is immunized.
The fact that vaccinations have been so effective for decades is part of the reason some people now believe they’re not necessary. Public immunity has worked so well, some of us have forgotten the truly frightening diseases that led to the development of vaccines. Vaccines have essentially led to the disappearance of deadly childhood diseases like polio, mumps, measles, rubella and whooping cough. Parents who decline to immunize have long relied on the immunity of others to protect their kids, but as large numbers of families in certain communities reject vaccines and illnesses like measles return, the consequences are frighteningly clear.
Why Don’t Some Parents Vaccinate?
A 2016 study published in the Journal of Pediatric Pharmacology and Therapeutics looked at four main reasons that parents refuse or hesitate to vaccinate their children. These include:
- Religious reasons: many states (including Virginia) offer parents a religious exemption to the vaccination requirement for attending public school. In some cases, a patient’s religious beliefs may lead them to reject some of the ingredients in vaccines or call for avoiding contemporary medical interventions.
- Personal beliefs: according to the study, some parents feel that there’s a benefit to allowing kids to experience childhood illnesses to boost immunity. Parents may also be concerned about putting chemicals in their children’s bodies and feel that vaccines are not “natural” enough.
- Safety concerns: In the last 20 years, physicians have been bombarded with questions about the safety of vaccines. Much of the fear-based decision-making surrounding vaccines goes back to a now-debunked study claiming to link vaccines with autism. This study left a generation of parents deeply concerned about vaccines endangering their children’s health, and while more recent studies have rejected any link, lingering concerns are still out there. Parents have also expressed concerns about the preservative Thimerosal, even though it has been removed from vaccines for children under 6 for more than 10 years. Finally, news stories highlight rare adverse reactions to vaccines while millions of safe vaccinations go unreported.
- A need for more information from medical providers: the final point highlighted by the study, which we witness regularly in our practice, is a lack of information about vaccines, including their benefits and risk of side effects. We also find that parents need more information about the diseases vaccines prevent. Illnesses like polio and mumps are virtually unknown to younger generations of parents. What we often see is more along the lines of vaccine hesitancy or uncertainty rather than flat refusal. We understand why parents feel uncertain and want to help them understand that vaccines are safe and so important. We regularly talk with parents who are concerned about the safety of vaccines, and we have detailed information showing that vaccines are safe and effective.
Do The Pros of Vaccinating Outweigh the Cons?
As mentioned above, the supposed link between vaccines and autism has been debunked. And while there are occasional adverse reactions to vaccines, serious complications are rare. In most cases, children are completely fine after receiving their first vaccines and at every future immunization.
The main benefit of vaccination is the protection not only of your individual child but of the important contribution vaccines make to public health. Unvaccinated children can become sick, and many parents underestimate the dangerous implications of diseases like chickenpox, which can lead to complications in adulthood. Unvaccinated individuals also pose dangers to at-risk groups including those who can’t get vaccines for medical reasons, unborn babies developing in the uterus and young infants who are not old enough to get their first vaccines.
Vaccines and My Child: How Can My Family’s Primary Care Provider Help?
At Comprehensive Primary Care, we believe that when given good information from a trusted practitioner, parents are able to make the best choices about their children’s health. The good practices that we recommend, including vaccinations, are the same ones we put in place for our own children.
Our experience tells us that communication is the best way to overcome fear. We discuss why vaccines are important and the rarity of adverse reactions. We can also share information debunking the myth of a link between vaccines and autism. Finally, we show parents that the recommended vaccination schedule is designed for optimal protection and safety. Our approach is to educate rather than to scold, and we are always ready to talk with parents about their concerns without judgment.