You've heard the anecdotes: Your friend's friend's toddler was doing great, just being a totally normal kid, and then all of a sudden he started showing signs of autism. Word has it that he had just gotten his vaccinations. You don't like fear-mongering and you're not a conspiracy-theorist, but isn't this connection just a little too weird to be a coincidence? All you want is to do right by your kid -- you want to ask the right questions and make the right decisions. But the whole issue of vaccinations ties your stomach in knots, and you feel neglectful no matter what you do.
I get it. Over the years, I have taken loads of my charges to get their vaccinations. I've talked to countless doctors on the subject. I have worked with many parents, and even those who understand the science behind vaccines and the overwhelming evidence supporting their safety have paused at the two-month visit, worrying about vaccine side effects -- three pokes and an oral liquid for a baby? Can their system handle that? I am expecting a little baby of my own now, and what to do about her vaccinations will be one of my first parenting decisions.
I've seen the vaccination debate from many angles, and I think I can help clear some things up. Above all, I want to make it clear to those frightened parents that there's nothing to be afraid of. Here are the most common concerns I hear, and some responses.
Hesitant parent: "But I saw a debate between both sides on the news -- clearly this isn't a simple issue."
Actually, it is. Airing disagreements does not mean that both sides are legitimate, and between the commercial breaks, editing, and theatrics of television, it can be difficult to parse a substantive debate from an emotional one. Yes, there are emotions on both sides of this issue. But there is supporting evidence only on one. And the truth is that when it comes to many decisions, medical science isn't always conclusive, but when it comes to vaccinations, it is. Vaccinations are life-saving. For user-friendly, evidence-based information, see the highly respected work of the vaccine education center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. You can also see how many children died or were hospitalized with these diseases before we had vaccines.
Hesitant parent: "Isn't there scientific evidence linking the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism?"
No. There was an article in a reputable scientific journal, The Lancet, in the late-1990s, that linked the MMR vaccine to autism, but it was found to be fraudulent and later it was fully retracted. Many subsequent well done studies have found no link. Unfortunately, this false information has had lasting repercussions for many well-meaning parents.
Hesitant parent: "I've heard that it's sensible to at least put my child on an alternative schedule for vaccinations, so that they're not getting so many at once."
I get that the alternative schedule seems like a win-win, but it's not. What it means, first of all, is that kids aren't getting their vaccines when they need them, and when the vaccines could protect them. It also means that parents get letters from their kids' schools saying they cannot attend until their vaccinations are updated. Then the parents who had followed the alternative schedule guidelines from Robert Sears' vaccine book frantically make appointments with their pediatricians to get caught up. I've seen schools require as many as 14 at once, and that is a lot. Even if the parent spaces them out at this point, that's a lot of trips to the doctor, and pokes aren't usually an appointment that the child is excited about.
Hesitant parent: "I'm just going to take a day off and read all of the studies I can possibly find, and then I'll make a decision."
That's fine to do, but it also puts an awful lot of pressure on the parent. Of course parents have a role in the medical well-being of their child -- they have intuition, and the benefit of knowing their child better than anyone else. But when it comes to vaccines, it's about the details, and it's easy for a novice to misinterpret them. Remember that medical professionals spend their careers learning how to read these studies and the data included in them. Why have we moved so far from simply finding a doctor we trust, and then trusting that doctor to do his or her job? We usually rely on experts to build our houses and fix our cars, and we don't typically understand all of the in-and-outs -- because life's too short to be an expert on everything. But when it comes to vaccinations, relying on others is almost seen as lazy or irresponsible, instead of beautiful and even necessary. So I say take the pressure off. Don't feel you need to be an expert. Instead, give yourself permission to let your doctor take the lead, provided -- and this is crucial -- it's a doctor you trust.
It bears mentioning that as soon as my little bundle is in need of her vaccinations, she will get them. Because while many parenting decisions are complicated, this one isn't. We needn't fear vaccines, which have saved millions of lives. I love to evoke my countryman Oscar Wilde's wisdom that "The only thing to do with good advice is to pass it on. It is never of any use to oneself." So please, take my advice -- vaccinate your children.
Emma Jenner is a parenting expert whose book Keep Calm and Parent On was recently published by Atria. Dr. Benjamin Jackson, a pediatrician with Virginia Mason Hospital & Medical Center, consulted on this article.