What's your perspective on the safety and advisability of child immunization? Several of our friends, who are also new parents, have very strong feelings against vaccinating children. I want to do what's best for our baby. Can you give me some guidance in this area?
The first thing you need to know is that, contrary to the claims of some groups and individuals, vaccines are safe. Before any vaccine reaches your doctor's office, it has undergone several rounds of rigorous clinical testing. The government continues to monitor all vaccines after their release to ensure that they are as safe as possible. While a small minority of children may experience mild reactions, including irritability, tenderness in the area of injection and low-grade fever, the likelihood of a severe reaction to a vaccine is extremely small – much smaller than the likelihood of complications due to the disease.
Some vaccines, such as the measles-mumps-rubella and diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis triple vaccines, are administered in combination and infants often receive several during a single office visit. This has led some parents to express concerns that their infant's immune system might be weakened as a result of receiving too many vaccines at one time. In actuality, a child's immune system is exposed to far fewer antigens over the entire course of recommended vaccinations than a child will face within the course of a normal day.
It is extremely important that immunization occur when children are young and still vulnerable. It's also vital that we continue to vaccinate for childhood measles, which we no longer see nearly as often as we once did. The fact of the matter is that these diseases have not been eradicated – we simply see them less frequently because most children are immunized against them. Even for diseases that have not occurred in North America for years, vaccination is still essential. For instance, wild polio has not occurred in the Western hemisphere since 1994, yet the accessibility of international travel means that someone elsewhere in the world who is infected with polio could carry it into parts of the world that have not seen it in decades.
We should add that many diseases that are commonly regarded as benign childhood ailments can be far more serious than many people realize. Rubella (German measles), for instance, can result in infant death and cause serious birth defects. Prior to immunization, pertussis (whooping cough) struck between 150,000 and 260,000 individuals annually and caused as many as 9,000 deaths per year. Before we had a vaccine, nearly everyone in the United States could expect to contract measles. At one time, this disease was responsible for about 450 deaths nationally every year (and it still kills more than 100,000 children every year around the world).
It's worth noting that there may be instances in which a doctor might postpone immunization – for example, when a child is ill or recovering from a severe illness.
There is, of course, a great deal more we could say on this subject, given the time and space. We could explain, for example, why the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Institute of Medicine have concluded that there is no relationship between autism and the MMR-II vaccine. We could provide documentation spelling out why there is no significant threat of mercury poisoning associated with modern childhood immunization. We could argue at length that the idea that physicians are involved in a global conspiracy to promote immunization at the expense of children's health is ludicrous at best and slanderous and dangerous at worst. But by this point we think you've probably got the main idea; Focus on the Family strongly favors the practice of protecting small children against dangerous infections by way of immunization. If you need more detailed information, we suggest you consult your family doctor or pediatrician.