DEAR MAYO CLINIC: My sister-in-law has chosen not to vaccinate her children. She believes they don’t need the vaccinations in the first place, and that vaccines actually do more harm than good. I know this can’t be true. What are the facts behind the safety and effectiveness of vaccinations? Isn’t it putting other kids at risk when some choose not to vaccinate?
ANSWER: Yes, you are exactly right. Not immunizing a child puts that child — as well as siblings, parents, friends and other people he or she may come in contact with — at risk. The childhood vaccines recommended in the United States have been proven safe and effective. They protect children from a variety of serious and sometimes fatal diseases, including diphtheria, measles, meningitis, polio, tetanus and whooping cough. Unless there is a valid medical contraindication, opting out of vaccines is a mistake.
The idea that vaccines are not needed because a child’s natural immunity provides enough protection is common among people who choose not to vaccinate their children. Although a natural infection may provide more complete immunity than a series of vaccinations, there’s a big price to pay. To become immune naturally, you have to get the infection first. With the infection comes the very real risk of severe and sometimes permanent complications, including hospitalization and death.
For example, a natural polio infection could cause permanent paralysis. A natural mumps infection could lead to deafness. A natural chickenpox infection could cause pneumonia or death. A natural Haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib) infection could result in permanent brain damage. Vaccinations help prevent these diseases and their complications. By relying on natural immunity alone, the risk of illness and death is far higher than with a vaccine.
The suggestion that vaccines do more harm than good is not based in fact. Vaccines are recommended in the U.S.only after they are closely evaluated by committees of vaccine experts. The data regarding vaccine effectiveness and safety are widely published for each vaccine. Anyone can review this information. It is available online from a variety of organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Network for Immunization Information and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Among other evidence of vaccine safety, a 2011 comprehensive review of vaccines by the Institute of Medicine failed to find any new or unsuspected autoimmune side effects from vaccines, and determined which side effects are likely caused by vaccines and which are not. In addition, despite much controversy on the topic, researchers have found no connection between childhood vaccines and autism. In fact, the original study that ignited that debate years ago has been retracted.
Lack of vaccinations has put many children at risk for diseases that are avoidable, including whooping cough and measles. If these diseases seem uncommon, it simply means that vaccines are doing their job. Evidence clearly shows that children have died because of under-vaccination, and that diseases have spread needlessly due to the trend of parents opting out of vaccines for their children.
As you point out, children who do not receive vaccines are not the only ones at risk. If a child contracts one of these serious diseases, it can spread to others. This is particularly dangerous for children who cannot get vaccinations because of medical problems or those whose bodies did not build up immunity after a vaccine. By choosing to not vaccinate her children, your sister-in-law puts the health and safety of other children in jeopardy, too.
Parents who are hesitant about vaccinating their children should seek information from reliable sources. Don’t look to blogs or celebrity opinions for facts about vaccines. Have a conversation with your child’s doctor. Ask questions. Review the CDC data. It is important that parents understand the value of vaccines. Vaccines protect children’s health and the health of our communities overall. Childhood vaccinations save lives. — Gregory Poland, M.D., Vaccine Research Group, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.