While at least one celebrity mother and a few news reporters have suggested that there is a link between autism and immunizations, pediatricians and numerous health organizations maintain that vaccines are safe and recommend that vaccines be administered on schedule to keep your children safe from a variety of vaccine-preventable diseases.
Here are answers to four of the most frequently asked questions that parents have about vaccinating their children:
1. How can I be sure that immunizing my child will not cause autism?
Numerous studies have been performed proving the safety of vaccines.
One reason parents might think there is a link between immunization and autism is that signs of the disorder often occur at the same age as the administration of several vaccines including MMR (mumps, measles and rubella) vaccine.
A small study in 1998 of just 12 children raised fears of a link between the MMR vaccine and the development of autism. Since then, 10 of the 13 study authors have retracted their conclusions.
In addition, other, larger studies have not found a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Instead, rates of autism are the same among populations of those who have and have not been vaccinated. Studies have also shown no association between thimerosal, a preservative previously used in some vaccines, and autism. Since thimerosal was removed from most childhood vaccines in 2001, autism rates have actually increased.
2. Since some diseases are practically unheard of now, why does my child still need to be immunized for them?
It is true that thanks to vaccines, many life-threatening diseases have become rare in the United States. However, we need to continue to get our children vaccinated to ensure that these diseases do not pop up again. In some cases, a disease may be just a "plane ride away" from infecting someone in America.
For example, the measles disease was re-introduced recently by visitors from other countries, or by unprotected U.S. residents acquiring the infection and returning with the illness. Even diseases commonly considered "not deadly" could prove otherwise because of variations or new strains, as past influenza seasons have shown.
3. Can the bacteria or viruses in a vaccine give my child the disease?
No, for the vast majority of children receiving recommended childhood vaccines. Most vaccines contain only pieces of inactivated (killed) bacteria or viruses that then stimulate the body to produce protective antibodies - like tetanus, for example. Some vaccines, like MMR, chicken pox and rotavirus contain live, very weak samples of these viruses which, in children with normal immune systems, stimulate the production of protective antibodies.
Certain individuals, such as those with cancer, AIDS or those taking certain medications that reduce the body's response to infection, might not be able to receive these live virus vaccines. Families should check with their child's physician to be sure it is safe for the child to receive a live virus vaccine.
These same children, however, can receive inactivated vaccines without concern, unless the child has some other contraindication (such as an allergy to some component of the vaccine). Family members living in households with children who are unable to receive a live virus vaccine should be immunized to help protect these vulnerable children from natural disease.
4. Will my child have any reactions from being vaccinated?
As with any medicine, immunizations might occasionally cause reactions, which are usually mild, such as a slight fever or soreness at the injection site.
Serious reactions from vaccines are rare. About 3 to 10 percent of children might experience a rash within 10 to 14 days after the MMR vaccine. A rash also can infrequently occur, most often at the injection site, after the chicken pox vaccine. If your child develops a rash, it should disappear in a few days. Consult your pediatrician if the rash does not go away.
Remember: While no vaccine is 100 percent safe and 100 percent effective, vaccines recommended for routine use in the United States have markedly reduced or eliminated many diseases seen in the past that are still present in many other countries. Overall, the benefits of immunization greatly outweigh the risks of adverse events from vaccines in the vast majority of children.
It is wise to be prepared. If you can get a vaccine that will reduce yours or your child's risk of becoming ill, I recommend that you do. If you still have questions or concerns about having your child vaccinated on the suggested schedule, talk to your child's doctor.
(Dr. Dennis Murray is chief of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at the MCGHealth Children's Medical Center.)
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