Vaccines are probably the most important health invention in history but are becoming victims of their own success. Vaccines have been so effective at erasing diseases like measles and whooping cough from daily human experience that we’ve all forgotten how dangerous some diseases are.

Misinformation about vaccines can cause unnecessary anxiety, and sorting out the truth from myths isn’t at all easy. For example, the misconception that using the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine could cause autism has stuck in many parents’ minds despite many studies that have conclusively shown no link between the vaccine and autism.

Despite the fact that vaccines are an efficient way to prevent a plethora of severe childhood diseases, a small but slowly growing number of parents are questioning whether there is a need for, or any benefits to, having a child immunized.

How Vaccines Work

Getting vaccinated protects us against illnesses in two main ways.

First, the individual getting vaccinated is protected because the vaccine will stimulate the immune system to recognize the disease virus in the future to generate an adequate response. Vaccines were developed to provide the benefit of immunization as thoroughly as possible to the people who get them, while also resulting in as few side effects as possible.

The second way is called herd immunity. In the same way a herd of animals will gather to create a protective shield around the most vulnerable members; herd immunity is how the immunized people in a community can protect the non-immunized members of that same community. This herd immunity is a crucial benefit derived from vaccination programs. There will always be some people in a population who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons, and even people who’ve been vaccinated that won’t benefit as well as most.

The Danger of Grassroots Organizations

Just how did childhood immunization, once a regular part of growing up change from innovative health science to a fractious public policy debate in the last few decades is a complicated picture, but it’s rooted in a distrust of both government and science.

The National Vaccine Information Center is one of several grassroots parents’ organization that is actively publicizing the possible risks of childhood vaccinations, causing increasing concern to public-health professionals. The presence of increasing numbers of unimmunized kids can endanger the health of an entire community.

Other organizations pushing for an end to vaccinations are:

  • Vaccine resistance movement which claims that “The Holistic Health Movement will eventually relegate the Vaccine Industry, and all similar aberrations of nature, to the dust-bin of history.”
  • Vaccine Liberation who are part of a national grassroots network dedicated to supplying data about vaccinations that they claim is not often available for public examination. Vaccine Liberation focuses on providing information they feel will allow parents to make an informed choice and hopefully, result in vaccine refusal/avoidance.
  • Vaccine Choice Canada which maintains a website focused on anti-vaccine stories and related information.

The Dangers of Anecdotal Evidence

Anecdotal evidence is an oxymoron. It’s based on an emotional reaction from personal experience, but it just isn’t evidence.

For example, a parent can say “My baby was healthy, then my baby got vaccinated and now isn’t healthy anymore. It must have been the vaccine that did it.” That’s just not real, science-based evidence. If a child does suffer a reaction after being given a vaccine, it’s entirely reasonable to ask if the vaccine was in some way responsible and that’s an easily answerable question. Researchers can do studies to find out by looking at large numbers of kids who were or were not vaccinated and look for any differences in the rates both groups develop autism. Fortunately, researchers have already done those studies and found that there’s no association between vaccinations and autism. That’s an example of real scientific evidence.

Relying on anecdotal, experience-based stories about how a parent experienced a particular vaccine damaging their child is like relying on hearsay when you’re looking for a good doctor – you don’t want rumors about his qualifications, you want reliable facts about his experience, expertise, and education.

What about People Who Refuse for Religious Reasons?

While it’s important to respect a religious community’s decision that vaccinations go against their religious beliefs, it doesn’t prevent their choice from affecting the health of the communities they live among.

Philadelphia, in 1991, an outbreak of measles started that was centered around two religious fundamentalist churches that insisted on refusing vaccinations for their children. Sadly, over a period of three months, there were over 1,400 cases of measles that resulted in nine deaths and caused a citywide panic.

When a Bad Idea Spreads

Much more recently, there are now 48 confirmed measles cases in Minnesota spread over Hennepin, Ramsey and Crow Wing counties. The outbreak is mostly affecting unvaccinated children in the Somali-American community, according to data released by the state’s Department of Health on October 23rd.

Of the individuals infected, 46 are kids 10 years old and younger; 41 are of Somali descent, and a whopping 45 had not been given the measles vaccine.
Minnesota’s outbreak, which is the largest in over twenty years, seems to have begun in a Somali community, where the vaccine skeptic message had recently spread.

Four Facts about Vaccination

  1. Just because a disease hasn’t infected people in recent memory doesn’t mean it won’t come back. Historically, when the vaccination rates goes down, disease rates go up, regardless how rare the sickness may currently be. Critically, with the increasing ease of both international adoption and travel, potentially severe illness is only as far as the nearest airport.
  2. While proper nutrition and hygiene can offer some protection against disease, they don’t provide the same disease-specific protection you can enjoy from being vaccinated. Without challenging your child’s immune system with the disease virus so that it can produce the right antibodies, there is still a significant risk of infection from exposure.
  3. Vaccination typically provides lifetime protection against specific infections, but there are some exceptions you need to remember. For example, we all need tetanus booster shots every ten years or so throughout our lives. Researchers have even discovered that pertussis immunity may also fade over time. By following your doctor’s recommendations regarding the vaccination schedule – you should be optimally protected against many serious diseases.
  4. Immunization isn’t just protection for individuals. Vaccination will also protect an entire community. Unvaccinated people will serve as a reservoir for infectious diseases, which can then be passed on to susceptible individuals, including the percentage of immunized children who won’t respond well to a specific vaccine. Kids who aren’t following the recommended vaccination schedule and those who mustn’t be vaccinated due to medical problems are especially at risk. Additionally, pregnant women and babies are also at risk. Doctor’s advise that kids under one year of age who are exposed to vaccine- preventable diseases like measles, mumps, pertussis and other diseases before they’ve been immunized are significantly less likely to survive an infection.

Consider the Facts and Make the Right Choice

Don’t rely on appeals to your emotions and propaganda from organizations that cherry-pick their ‘proof’ from a sloppy (and at times dishonest) interpretation of the facts. Use the links included in this article as a springboard to your own research and make an educated, science-based decision regarding the safety and necessity of vaccinations.

While it’s fashionable to question establishment science, believe conspiracy theories, and distrust the government – keep in mind that these are professionals who have dedicated their working lives to looking out for our best interests and finding ways to keep our children safe.

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George Citroner

GW Citroner is a Hudson Valley, NY based writer whose work has appeared in over 20 publications and on an incredible range of Health & Wellness topics.

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