When I was eight years old I had the Chicken Pox. I can vaguely remember feeling crummy for a period of time, very itchy and with sores all over my body. I still have a few scars from the disease. This was before there was a vaccine for chicken pox and so it was passed along through schools every year. However, it was not until I was working as a medical intern that I truly understood the benefit of vaccinating against this disease.
I cared for a young woman, close to the age that I was when I had the disease. She was in the hospital because the chicken pox virus, Varicella, had infected her skin with at least 400 blisters all over her body and some of the blisters became infected by a bacteria. This is called a super-infection. This infection was so horrible for her, she had to be admitted to the hospital for IV antibiotics and burn treatment methods to help her survive. The same virus was also infecting her lungs. I thought, “Now I get it!” We vaccinate for chicken pox to prevent horrific symptoms and complications of this illness including death.
On any given day we administer 25-30 vaccines. That means that between our clinic staff at Thrive, myself, Dr. Taylor and our nurse practitioner Bryana we are probably discussing vaccines at least 150 times a week. I would consider our team as vaccine experts and as an expert I have encountered three common misconceptions about vaccines. They are as follows and in no particular order.
- Giving too many vaccines at once will harm my baby.
- Giving vaccines at such a young age puts my infant at risk.
- Vaccines lead to unfortunate developmental outcomes.
All three of these statements are false and I will explain why, one by one. I credit Dr. Paul A. Offit and Charlotte A. Moser for much of the information to support this article.
- Some families are concerned that too many vaccines at once are unsafe and therefore, they elect to spread out the established vaccine schedule. This reminds me of when I took my own son in for his one year check-up. He had to receive more than one vaccine and it was not easy for me, even as a pediatrician, to participate. But I knew it was safe and necessary and this is why. Each vaccine goes through years and sometimes decades of research to ensure their safety. In addition, their immune system is ready. When an infant is born they are exposed to trillions of bacteria immediately as they leave the womb. Their immune system then has to start to create antibodies against these various bacteria to prevent infection but also allow for a symbiotic relationship with much of the bacteria. The amount of protein material to which our vaccines expose our children is minuscule compared to the amount of exposure they have when they are born.
- Other families get nervous that giving vaccines at such a young age is dangerous. It is true that through the placenta and after birth via breast milk, mothers antibodies are passed to the newborn to allow for some temporary protection. However, those antibodies do not survive forever so it is up to the infant to create their own. The vaccine exposes the infant to a small amount of protein that looks like the illness but isn’t so they cannot get infected. Fortunately, the vaccine helps them create antibodies to protect them in case the children are ever naturally exposed. Therefore, researchers have designed a schedule based on the safety of the vaccine and also based on which bacteria and viruses are most potentially harmful to our children at their specific age. In other words, at child’s young age, it is much more risky to be exposed naturally to these preventable illnesses compared to our safety proven vaccines.
- Finally, many families have avoided vaccines because they are worried about developmental complications of them. I have overseen the administration of vaccines for 13 years, an estimated 70-80 thousand vaccines and have come across two minor complications, neither of which were developmental or cognitive in nature. In addition, there is no validated data to support these claims. Vaccines have been tested and retested multiple times and found to be safe.
At this time, Thrive Pediatrics welcomes all patients, no matter their vaccine status. We are confident in the care we provide and therefore want all children to have an opportunity for good health care. However, we encourage families to seek out the best research in their efforts to create their own vaccine plan and to follow the standard ACIP schedule. I recommend the book Vaccines and Your Child, Separating Fact from Fiction, written by Dr. Paul A. Offit and Charlene A. Moser. In addition, the CDC.gov has incredible resources to cover all your vaccine related questions.
One final point. My wife’s grandmother would tell her that she literally cried in relief when the vaccine for polio was announced. This was an illness that either killed or permanently disabled thousands of children including my father’s sister who died at 13 years of age. Today we don’t hear of these illnesses. Our children don’t go to school with other children disabled due to polio or with hearing loss due to meningitis. To continue this era of safety against the horrific illnesses of the past we must continue to vaccinate.
Dr. Steven Smith, MD FAAP