In the winter of 2015, when 147 cases of measles spread into seven states, plus Canada and Mexico, parents were unnerved, partly because the outbreak started at Disneyland, in California. But it could’ve been so much worse. If there were no measles vaccine, we’d have at least 4 million cases in the U.S. every year. Before the vaccine arrived in 1963, nearly everyone got the disease in childhood, and on average 440 kids died from it annually in the decade prior.
Fortunately, today between 80 and 90 percent of kids receive most vaccines. But in some regions in the U.S., growing numbers of parents are opting out. When that happens, they up the risk of outbreaks in their community. Do the most common reason parents skip vaccines? Safety concerns, despite overwhelming evidence that they’re not dangerous. The most recent proof: an exhaustive 2013 report by the Institute of Medicine that found the U.S. childhood immunization schedule is effective, with very few risks. (And we’ll get to those.)
Perhaps the most important health invention in history, vaccines are a victim of their success.
“They’re so effective, they take diseases like measles away. But then we forget those diseases are dangerous,” says Kathryn Edwards, M.D., director of the Vanderbilt University Vaccine Research Program, in Nashville. Misinformation about vaccines also contributes to anxiety, and sorting truth from fiction isn’t always easy. The misconception that the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine might cause autism has lingered in some parents’ minds for more than a decade despite more than a dozen studies showing no link between the two.
Vaccines do have risks, but our brain has a hard time putting the risk in perspective, says Neal Halsey, M.D., a pediatrician, and director of the Institute for Vaccine Safety at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore. People may fear flying more than driving because driving is common and familiar, but driving is far more dangerous. Vaccinating children to protect them against life-threatening diseases can cause mild, short-term side effects, such as redness and swelling at the injection site, fever, and rash. But the most serious risks, such as severe allergic reactions, are far rarer than the diseases vaccines protect against. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the risk of a serious allergic reaction from any vaccine is one in 1 million doses.
Even with the minuscule risk, some parents may still be worried, and that makes sense. Here’s what you seldom hear from vaccine experts: There’s often an element of truth to parents’ concerns, even if they misunderstand some of the facts, Dr. Halsey says. That makes it even more frustrating if your doctor dismisses your fears or insists on vaccinating without answering all of your questions. In some cases, docs are refusing to treat kids whose parents don’t vaccinate, though the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not recommend that. So we’re giving you the lowdown on the most common fears.
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