Since I write about medicine at BusinessWeek, I am regularly asked by new parents whether it is safe to vaccinate their children. I am always a little amazed by this question, since the people asking are invariably bright and well-informed, and care desperately about the well-being of their children. Yet somehow they are not aware that virtually every rigorous study ever done--and there have been many-- has concluded that the standard childhood vaccines are safe. They do not cause autism, retardation or any other neurological conditions.
What isn't safe are the deadly diseases that vaccinations protect against, as was proven by a measles outbreak in Indiana last year that infected 34 people. No one died, but two adults and one child had to be hospitalized, and the costs of tracking and treating the outbreak totalled $168,000. The outbreak, reported in the most recent issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, started with a 17-year-old who had visited an orphanage in Romania, where she picked up the virus. A day after her return, she attended a church event and passed the infection to unvaccinated children who in turn passed it to other family members. Here's the scary part, as described in a USA Today story:
The family members interviewed by federal researchers said they didn't have their children immunized because of concerns about vaccine safety. They cited fears that the vaccine could cause autism and worries about the possible effects of the vaccine preservative thimerosal, and they said they'd prefer their children to acquire immunity through exposure to the virus.
"Isn't it a tragedy that their children, because of this, had to experience the disease itself?" says infectious-disease specialist William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University, who was not involved in the report. Measles is serious, he says; it includes rash and fever, and it brings the risk of complications including pneumonia and encephalitis. The vaccine is "extraordinarily safe," Schaffner says.
A theoretical link with autism, which was raised several years ago, has been discredited, Schaffner says, and the vaccine has never contained thimerosal.
The fears about vaccines all stem from one 1998 study from England that has been thoroughly discredited--it involved only 12 children-- and disproved by several very large, rigorously conducted studies since. Just to allay fears manufacturers have removed the preservative thimerosal from vaccines--and studies in Scandinavia and England done since found that there was no decline in the incidence of autism after thimerosal was removed.
But the myths remain. I know there are parents (I've met some) that feel they don't need to bother vaccinating their children because everyone else's kids are getting the needle, so there is no risk of them contracting measles, rubella or whooping cough. NOT TRUE, as the Indiana case proves.
If you are at all uncertain about what to do for your child, please, educate yourself. The prestigious Children's Hospital of Philadelphia has an excellent package of information on vaccines at it's web site that should answer your questions if you don't feel your pediatrician can. It includes an article published last year in Babytalk magazine that goes through each of the common myths about vaccines. For all the information you'll ever need about recommended vaccines, check out the Centers for Disease Control web site.