I was 5 years old when I had the measles. I remember how miserable I was with fever, kept in a dark room because of the eye inflammation and degree of contagion. Also, for the first few years of my practice, in the early 1980s, I cared for several children every year with meningitis and other life-threatening infections caused by a bacterium called H. influenzae (not related to “the flu”) meningitis. And for many years, I hospitalized several patients with gastrointestinal illnesses caused by rotavirus.
Pediatricians today rarely see illnesses like measles, H. influenzae meningitis or rotavirus diarrhea – because vaccines to prevent these threats to children have been developed and are readily available. So why, as I write this column, is there an epidemic outbreak of measles in the northwestern U.S.? The reason is vaccine refusal.
If every parent wants what is best for his or her children, why would any parent refuse to vaccinate? There are four categories of rationales: religious reasons, philosophical reasons, concern over vaccine safety and a desire for adequate education. I will not discuss religious exemptions, other than to note the states that allow these have a more than 50 percent higher rate of vaccine-preventable illnesses than those that do not allow such exemptions.
There are personal beliefs, which are often erroneous. Some parents believe that allowing their children to contract a preventable illness is more desirable than vaccination. Some parents assume that vaccine-preventable illnesses are rare (because vaccination is so successful) so their children are not likely to be exposed. Both beliefs seem indefensible, as avoiding an illness is better than contracting one, and it is critical to the health of the population that preventable illnesses be prevented – especially for children who cannot be vaccinated due to underlying illnesses or immune deficiencies.
Books have been written about vaccine safety, both pro and con. Reputable scientists, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and countless studies have proven the safety of vaccines and disproven false claims, such as discredited former British doctor Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 study that falsely linked autism to the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine, more articles suggesting that thimerosal, (a preservative now removed from all vaccines) caused mercury poisoning – and on and on.
The desire for education about vaccines, their efficacy, their safety and their minimal risks is reasonable. All education should begin with your child’s physician. Additional information may be found at the American Academy of Pediatrics’ healthychildren.org.
Dr. Joseph Kahn is president of Mercy Kids (mercykids.org), an expansive network of pediatric care dedicated to meeting the needs of every child, every day. For more information or to find a pediatrician near you, visit mercy.net/laduenews.