A Parents’ Guide to Children’s Vaccinations

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Vaccine side effects: myths or fact?

Parental perceptions

child immunization

Photo courtesy of PATH global health via Flickr

Vaccines do pose some health risks, and that’s one of the reasons parents may feel uneasy about it. Mistrust of pharmaceutical companies is another reason parents are hesitant to vaccinate their children (and this mistrust is certainly not unwarranted). The increase in the number of vaccines used on children is also worrisome to parents. Ironically, some of the controversy surrounding immunization is actually due to its early success. Vaccines were so efficient in reducing the prevalence of diseases that the public concern for these diseases diminished and fear about side effects became the focus. If parents can’t perceive the benefits of immunization, they may focus on things that they can hear, see, and feel.

Many parents go by what they hear. Research has suggested that when it comes to vaccination, parents in the United States pay the most attention to what their partner has to say, followed by their pediatrician and friends and family. The findings imply that social networks have a big influence on parents’ decision and help shaping their beliefs in vaccines. It’s extremely uncommon to see parents write on social networks “We are so happy we just vaccinated our child.” Instead, many postings on social networks are either about side effects, or about vaccines being unnecessary. Living Green with Baby has recently conducted a poll how parents feel about child vaccination using forums and social networks that target parents. The results imply that although most parents think that, in general, vaccinating children is mostly beneficial; slightly less than half think that vaccinating children is mostly harmful, or they’re not sure.

kids and vaccines, immunization, green parenting

Survey conducted in July 2013

Proven vaccine side effects

For the most part, side effects from vaccines tend to be mild: redness, pain, congestion, runny nose and low fever. For the majority of vaccines, severe allergic reactions are the worst possible side effect; although pneumonia (varicella vaccine), prolonged muscle pain (tetanus and diphtheria vaccine) and more serious issues are also possible. Severe side effects are mainly very rare (approximately 1 in a million chance). For comparison: Falling television sets injure just over 2 in 10,000 children in the U.S.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has information on verified vaccine side effects as well as reported side effects that have not yet been scientifically proven to be caused by vaccines. The CDC together with the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has several systems in place to ensure that the risk of the use of vaccines is minimized. A very useful one is the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) which lets you report and access side effects of using vaccines. They use this data to actively monitor the performance of vaccines. Tips for a less stressful vaccine experience are also provided. Finally, the Health Resources and Services Administration agency provides a table with time periods for side effects to occur (if any) for many vaccines. Parents must be aware that there are a lot of side effects claims spreading via social networks and websites that are simply incorrect or based on misinterpretations of facts.

Are there any vaccines that don’t work or have too many side effects?

For most vaccines, the pros currently outweigh the cons, but there is some debate among the experts over certain vaccines.

In 1976, there was a swine flu outbreak in Fort Dix New Jersey. It prompted a mass immunization program. It was later determined that, although with a 1 in a million chance, the swine flu vaccine might cause Guillain-Barré syndrome, a disorder affecting the peripheral nervous system. Given that the swine flu outbreak was relatively non-harmful and the potential serious side effect of the vaccine, the incident had wide societal and political impact.

More recently, Gardasil, a human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine available since 2006 has had its share of controversy. Among the arguments fueling the debate are:

benefits of vaccines

Photo courtesy of by I woz ere via Flickr

Despite the fact that most vaccines currently have more benefits than risks, new vaccines, changes in formulations and procedures happen all the time, so it is wise to stay on top of the latest news.

False claims related to the use of vaccines

1. Vaccines cause autism:

  •  Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey are two celebrities who argue vehemently against vaccines and claim links to autism. McCarthy has even written a few books on the subject.
  • In a 1998 press conference Andrew Wakefield stated that his published scientific paper found a link between the MMR vaccine and the onset of autism. This caused a drop in vaccinations in England and an over 2,400% rise in measles cases between 1998 and 2008. When other scientists couldn’t reproduce the results, a necessary step in scientific research, and investigation was conducted. It was found that Dr. Wakefield had conflicts of interest (for example, children were recruited by a lawyer with an interest in a lawsuit against vaccine manufacturers) and that his study had other fatal flaws. But the damage caused by the publicity had already been done. To this day we still see many who claim that there is a link between autism and the use of the MMR or other vaccines.
  • Many of the watchdog agencies do take public concerns seriously, and in 1999, Thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative found in some vaccines, was reduced or eliminated as a precaution although scientific evidence did not show a link between Thimerosal exposure and autism. It should be noted that change in Thimerosal content did not reduce the autism rates in the U.S.

2. Many of the diseases are not epidemic anymore so the corresponding vaccines are unnecessary

Since many of these diseases are no longer epidemic in the United States, some parents incorrectly assume that the risk of contracting the disease is lower than the risk of their child experiencing an adverse reaction to the vaccine. However, many of these diseases are still common in other countries. For example the mumps outbreak that occurred in the US in 2006 was probably introduced from an epidemic in Great Britain. Outbreaks of measles and whooping cough have occurred in recent years across the U.S.

3. Whooping cough vaccines are making children more likely to suffer from the disease

Incidence of the disease has increased in recent years. But there is no evidence to support that vaccines are at fault. This myth might have resulted from misinterpretation of results from recent research. In fact, children who do not take the pertussis vaccine are at least 8 times more likely to suffer from the disease

4. The number of cases of many diseases started decreasing before the introduction of vaccines

Historical data shows this claim to be false. Even when considering better sanitation and medical service systems, vaccination has been found to have played a major role in the reduction of infectious diseases.

5. Vaccines have high levels of aluminum in them

Some vaccines use aluminum to boost the immune response to the vaccine. The levels of aluminum in these vaccines are similar to the amount found in a liter of infant formula.

6. Vaccines cause sudden infant death syndrome, diabetes and other diseases

Recent studies do not support these arguments

7. Natural methods of enhancing immunity, such as breastfeeding and a healthy diet are enough to prevent diseases.

While good nutrition and other healthy choices do indeed lead to a better immune system, they are not enough to protect us from many diseases.

8. Doctors, pharmaceutical companies and/or anyone that is in favor of immunization is motivated by financial incentive 

This is an unfair statement often made against supporters of immunization. Ironically, Andrew Wakefield, one of the main proponents of the anti-immunization movement, did have financial interests at stake when he made his claims against vaccines.

9. There are simply too many vaccines in the vaccination schedule, increasing the chances of adverse events

Currently, there is no scientific evidence supporting this argument. But this is a valid concern for parents to have. Whenever there is a change in the vaccine schedule, this statement must be reconsidered.

Though many links between vaccines and diseases have been claimed, most of them have been debunked.  The American Academy of Pediatrics also provides a list of studies debunking many of the side effects claims and statements discussed above

Parents do have some very valid concerns about vaccines. However, it is important to avoid making conclusions too hastily. A 1998 study found that Australia, Japan, the Russian Federation and many European countries experienced pertussis outbreaks when pertussis vaccination programs were suspended due to misinformation. Each country found it necessary to reinstate the pertussis vaccine into the vaccination program.

Next: Vaccine tips for parents

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Author:Robert Rivera PhD

Proud dad and statistics university professor. His specialty is the use and construction of statistical methods. Also strategy analyst for Living Green with Baby

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