Christopher Arth: Vaccines: factual evidence, myths and dangers of denial
As we enter a new decade, I wish to address the critical role that immunizations play in preventive medicine. Evidence conservatively estimates that vaccines save 2.5 million lives yearly.
Since 1905, when the Supreme Court decided smallpox vaccine could be mandated for the public good, many other cases have been decided in a similar fashion. California SB 277 was passed in 2015 to eliminate religious and personal exemptions for school immunizations.
And, beginning this year, SB 276 has strengthened the law by monitoring the medical exemptions written by doctors, some unscrupulous. Did you know that the only validated reason for a medical exemption for those with normal immunity is a history of anaphylaxis (severe allergy)? Many other states and even Europe, which has experienced many of the recent measles outbreaks, are gradually adopting California’s policies in an attempt to reduce future vaccine preventable disease outbreaks.
The decision on whether to immunize can be emotional for parents. Let me try to dispel some of the myths that influence this decision:
1. “Too many /too young” — Current vaccines and their published schedules are evidence-based as safe and effective. Infants are exposed to hundreds of immune challenges daily, often simultaneously while breathing and eating. Multiple vaccines are not a threat. Delays in vaccines merely increase the odds of contracting and spreading disease to this most vulnerable population.
2. “Vaccines cause the illness” — Vaccines which contain no live virus, such as injectable flu, cannot cause disease. Live vaccines (MMR, chickenpox, rotavirus, and nasal flu) are so modified that if a mild form of the disease occurs, it is non-contagious and non-threatening. Serious side-effects are extremely rare. Sometimes a low-grade fever or mild achiness may occur which is really a sign that your body is responding as it should by developing antibodies to fight future viruses.
3. “Vaccines contain harmful chemicals” — Manufacturers use only ingredients that are needed to keep immunizations as safe and effective as possible. Traces of certain ingredients remain, but the levels of these are less than what we encounter through our diet and nature. The composition of vaccines has been greatly improved over the years.
4. “My child has a cold so no vaccine this visit” — Not true. Short of the child having a serious illness/high fever, the immune system can handle many challenges simultaneously. Children should stay on their recommended schedule.
5. “My child is not exposed yet” — Even if children are not in school or daycare, every trip out of the house by child or parent, as well as visitors to the house, risks exposure. When travelling to Europe with a child over 6 months, the measles (MMR) vaccine is highly recommended. Keep in mind, avoiding the public has risks to the child’s immune and allergy system as well.
6. “Good diet/public health explains the huge improvements in life expectancy” — Important, yes, but even a cursory look at the evidence shows vaccine’s critical contribution. If improved diet and sanitation were the major contributing factors, recurring measles, flu, and whooping cough outbreaks would not occur.
7. “My decision only affects my family” — It is difficult to compromise our freedoms, but we do it in a nation of laws. We need herd immunity (better than 95% vaccine coverage) to prevent outbreaks. This protects individuals who cannot be immunized such as those with cancer, immune issues, and newborns. Vaccines aren’t perfect, so some of those vaccinated can still get sick, but this is considerably less likely in a community that is well vaccinated.
8. “It’s better to get the disease” — Do you feel lucky? If you avoid death, serious impairment and major medical costs, then yes, natural immunity tends to be stronger. That said, to paraphrase Bill Gates who has devoted millions to world-wide vaccination, no philosophy suggests having polio is a good idea. We forget.
Now some good news. Some diseases have been eliminated by vaccines (smallpox) or eradicated from the US (polio, rubella, and “endemic” measles). What about the fight against cancer? The HPV vaccine prevents about 30,000 cases of cancer a year in this country for both females (primarily cervical) and males (primarily head, neck, and anal). And, the Hep b vaccine has reduced liver cancer.
Immunization limits antibiotic overuse, which threatens our health, including our vital intestinal bacteria. Vaccines prevent diseases that previously forced the use of antibiotics (e.g. pneumonia, meningitis, and sepsis).
In truth, vaccines save millions of lives, millions in healthcare costs, and countless hours of time lost at work and school. Please vaccinate and protect your community.
Article provided by Christopher Arth MD, Fellow American Academy of Pediatrics, Physician Director – Wellness Neighborhood & Community Health – Tahoe Forest Health System. You can reach Dr. Arth at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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