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Risks and Benefits of Vaccinating Children

Vaccines for children have become controversial in recent years, with concerns about autism pushing a growing number of parents to choose to exempt their kids from recommended vaccines. A recent Los Angeles Times article reported that the number of kids starting kindergarten with vaccine exemptions has more than doubled since 1997. Over 10,000 families signed affidavits saying vaccines are “contrary to my beliefs” before the school year last fall, allowing their kids to attend without vaccinations, and because these families tend to be clustered in affluent areas and smaller schools, the Times estimates 1 in 11 elementary schools is now at risk of an outbreak of measles, mumps, or whooping cough. A measles outbreak in San Diego last year was triggered by a vaccine-exempt 7-year-old boy, and infected over a dozen children partly because a high proportion of students at his charter school were also unvaccinated.

Worries about a possible link to autism have risen in the past ten years as the side effects of high doses of mercury-containing thimerosal, a once-common vaccine preservative, became widely publicized. Today, however, according to the FDA’s Thimerosal FAQ, “all vaccines routinely recommended for children 6 years of age or younger and marketed in the U.S. contain no thimerosal or only trace amounts (1 microgram or less mercury per dose), with the exception of inactivated influenza vaccine”. The FAQ further notes that inactivated influenza vaccines are also marketed without thimerosal. The bottom line is, regardless of concerns about thimerosal-containing vaccines in the past, today you can to vaccinate your kids without exposing them to more than a tiny trace amount, which has been proven safe in multiple studies.

Not only do parents have to look at the risk thimerosal may carry, but the risks to your children and the kids they go to school with, to daycare with, to soccer and girl scouts and camp with: the risk of contracting and passing on serious illnesses like measles, mumps, whooping cough, hepatitis, and meningitis. With the success of vaccination campaigns over the past 50 years, the risks and realities of these diseases are no longer part of our common experience. In 1920, according to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly half a million cases of measles were reported, and more than 7,500 deaths. Between January and August 2008, the CDC reported 131 cases of measles, and no deaths – a figure higher than any year since 1996, but which shows the overwhelming impact of today’s vaccines. It is worth noting that of those 131 patients, 63 were children whose parents had obtained vaccine exemptions.

A public information campaign to educate parents of the risks to unvaccinated children and their communities is urgently needed to reduce the vulnerability of Sonoma County’s schools. Childhood vaccines are recommended because the illnesses they protect against are serious and potentially deadly, and parents need to understand that. The FDA is continuing to focus on vaccine safety and reducing or eliminating thimerosal content, and concerned parents can work with their child’s doctor to ensure vaccines are safe for their child.

Vaccines, like virtually all drugs and medications, carry a risk of very rare but serious side effects. However, when you compare the risks of vaccines to the chance that a single unvaccinated child could not only become very ill but infect many others with a disease that can be deadly, it is difficult to justify withholding vaccinations in most children. In short, vaccinate your kid, and pass the word on. We need to make sure every parent understands: vaccines save lives.