Among the questions I get asked the most by parents in my office, and while I am on the road, is this: “What are your thoughts on vaccines and immunizations?” I know this is a hot-button topic, and there are a lot of passionate perspectives on any given side of it — so as a longtime pediatrician, let me talk to you about this.
First, I know vaccines can be frightening. I’m a mother of four and have been on both ends of the needles, so I fully understand a parent’s apprehension.
Over the years, more vaccines have been developed and there are now so many immunizations that navigating them feels overwhelming.
As far as immunizations overwhelming the baby’s immune system — they don’t.
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During the first year of life, infants are required to get immunizations against polio, diptheria, pertussis (whooping cough), Hib, hepatitis B, chicken pox, and the dreaded MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella).
The reasons parents most frequently cite for not wanting to immunize are: concern about autism, worry that the child’s immune system will be overwhelmed, seizures, paralysis, and even brain damage. Some parents don’t want to immunize because they’ve read that the MMR was made from aborted fetuses.
Let me clear a few things up. The original researchers who claimed that MMR caused autism have retracted their findings and said that they jumped to conclusions. The MMR does NOT cause autism and the majority of mothers in my practice who have kids with autism say that they observed early signs and knew something was wrong with their child right from the get-go.
As far as immunizations overwhelming the baby’s immune system — they don’t. As a matter of fact, some medical studies have suggested that children have more allergies now than ever before because kids aren’t exposed to enough allergens (which stimulate the immune system) early in life.
As far as seizures and brain damage, these were caused by a form of the pertussis vaccine, which is no longer used.
Finally, the claim that cells from aborted fetuses are used is not true. Many years ago, embryonic cells were used in MMR, but this was stopped long ago.
Remember that no matter what we choose, our kids are all at risk. Life is dangerous for them. The illnesses these immunizations prevent are life-threatening. We forget this because we don’t see them as often as we used to. Hib, for instance causes swelling of the epiglottis (tissue in the throat) of young children and is a medical emergency. I saw this illness with regularity in the 1980s, and children with it ended up in intensive care. I haven’t had one case in over 15 years because of the Hib vaccine.
Many parents cite that the polio vaccine isn’t needed because we have eradicated it in the U.S. Yes, we have, but polio exists in other countries and with the amount of travel people do, it can become a real risk for kids here at home. I worked with a colleague who was my age and had polio because he spent his early childhood years in China. When parents saw him examine their children while standing on his metal crutches, they never refused the polio vaccine.
They saw his paralyzed legs.
Not immunizing your kids puts them at a greater risk than immunizing them does.
We have to remember that not immunizing kids puts them at a greater risk than immunizing them does. Let’s face it, who wants to give their babies shots? None of us does. But not immunizing kids is like putting them in a car and not strapping them in a car seat. Sure, they’re probably be safe as they wander around the back seat. But what if you get into an accident? They would be completely unprotected. We could stop driving, but that isn’t very practical. We can try keeping our kids away from other kids with germs and cloister them in our homes, but that’s not very practical either. They will go to school, to Grandma’s, and to the mall.
While I would love to tell you that they wouldn’t be exposed to nasty illnesses, I can’t. The infections are real and they are out there.
So when you’re making decisions about immunizations, think about these things. Don’t swallow just any written piece of information you come across. There is more incorrect information circulated on vaccines than there is correct information, so be smart. Go to the American Academy of Pediatrics at AAP.org or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at CDC.gov.
Most major pediatric teaching centers include great information about vaccines on their websites. The data they give is reviewed by many doctors and researchers, so any errors will be discarded. You can count on the information you read to be accurate.
Parents, I know you’re afraid of vaccines. I know you want the best for your child — so take my word for it, as a pediatrician for over 30 years: Vaccines are here to protect the ones you love. You can’t control every germ that comes your child’s way, but you can trust the medical information available to you to make informed decisions.
Dr. Meg Meeker has practiced pediatrics and adolescent medicine for 30 years. She is the author of the online course, “The 12 Principles of Raising Great Kids,” which is part of The Strong Parent Project.