Vaccinating Against Diseases We Can’t See: Why Everyone Deserves a Shot

August is Immunization Awareness Month
August is Immunization Awareness Month

We are fortunate to live in an era when vaccines prevent more than 2.5 million deaths each year, yet skepticism has some parents opting out of what many others consider to be one of the biggest scientific breakthroughs of our time.

Some apprehension stems from bad information that, like a disease, spreads quickly with grave consequences. Increasingly, though, it’s not so much the perceived health risks that are causing parents to skip vaccinations, but rather the feeling that vaccinations today simply aren’t necessary. When is the last time you saw a child with polio, diphtheria or the mumps, after all? The beauty is that we don’t live with many of the diseases that vaccinations prevent, and as it turns out, that is also the problem. Nearly 75 percent of parents who refuse or delay vaccines just don’t see the point.

Vaccinations need a messaging overhaul to help steer parents in the right direction, and that starts with revisiting some historically forgone conclusions that have begun to unravel over time. Here are four of the most common myths that I hear from parents alongside some common sense realities to help you decide whether vaccinating your child is a good idea.

Myth 1: Vaccines protect from diseases that are not a threat to my child.

Reality: History has shown that when vaccination rates drop, disease rates rise, period. Never mind how impossible that reality seems, for many diseases, without vaccines, just a few cases can quickly turn into many. Take measles, for example. Measles has been a vaccine-preventable disease since 1963 and was eliminated from the U.S. in 2000, yet outbreaks are on the rise. Why? Because unvaccinated travelers are bringing the disease back to the U.S. and infecting unvaccinated residents. In 2004, there were 37 cases and by 2014 there were 667 cases. This number will continue to rise as more parents opt out of the measles vaccine for their kids – a simple prevention that has saved an estimated 17.1 million lives since 2000.

Myth 2: The risk of side effects outweighs the benefits.

Reality: It can be hard for parents to grasp the enormous benefits of vaccinations, largely because those benefits are invisible. Parents who vaccinate will never know how many times their child was exposed to diphtheria or whooping cough, for example, because their child’s vaccine-induced immunity will protect them, and that’s the point. When we take those seemingly intangible benefits and factor in conflicting safety reports, parents can rightfully get a little uneasy. Thankfully, the medical community is way ahead of the vaccination debate, and study after study confirms the safety of vaccinations as a necessary introduction to an otherwise very germy, contagious world. Typical side effects include things like redness, swelling and joint pain. If you are still feeling hesitant, talk to a nurse practitioner. The risk of side effects is miniscule compared to the risk of contracting a vaccine-preventable disease, and your provider can help put the many benefits in perspective.

Myth 3: Even if my child isn’t vaccinated, most of the other kids are, so there’s a slim chance s/he will catch any diseases.

Reality: It’s true that nearly 90 percent of U.S. kids are fully immunized against ailments that once killed thousands every year. Still, those who aren’t protected are at risk. Relying on herd immunity – or the belief that if most of a population is vaccinated, an outbreak is unlikely – is a gamble at best, and increasingly ineffective as the number of unvaccinated people increases (which is a concern for tiny babies, pregnant women, the elderly and others with suppressed immunities who benefit most from the herd approach). And while herd immunity can help control the spread of something like meningitis, it has zero power over tetanus, which lives in the soil and can’t be passed from one person to the next. The bottom line is siphoning off some of the societal benefits of mass immunity is not even remotely the same thing as giving your child their own antibodies.

Myth 4: It’s better for my child to naturally create antibodies for milder childhood diseases like chickenpox.

Reality: Chickenpox causes more deaths than any other vaccine-preventable childhood disease, mainly because complications like strep infection are so common. Hoping your child gets chicken pox (and the antibodies) the old-fashioned way? The chances are far less likely now that the CDC recommends that states require the chickenpox vaccine for all kids before entering school. As chickenpox becomes less commonplace, there’s a greater chance your child will get the disease later in life, and get much sicker as a result. Additionally, skipping the vaccine increases your child’s risk of developing painful shingles in adulthood.

Today most doctors in the U.S. have never seen a case of the measles, but not too long ago, before a vaccination existed, nearly everyone got it. Like measles, many of the scariest diseases from our history books are a single plane ride away, and even if your child does not turn out to be a world traveler, chances are, s/he will encounter many people who are. If you are questioning the need for, or the benefits of, vaccinating your child, talk to your provider. There is a wealth of research available to help explain why we still vaccinate for diseases we cannot see, along with diseases like meningitis and even the flu that are very much of a threat today.

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