Vaccinating Against Risk

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by Steve Kairys

When Nietzsche wrote the memorable maxim “What does not kill me, makes me stronger,” he wasn’t talking about viruses—but he could have been.

Take polio as an example. Sixty years ago, widespread vaccinations spared a generation the nightmare of polio. Where would we be—as a nation, as a people—had that not happened?

If you want an answer to that question, look to Nigeria. Right now, a massive effort is underway to eradicate polio there, where it is no longer considered an “outbreak”, but an endemic disease, one as common to the area as wind, water, or earth. Eradication efforts have met with some success, to be sure, but the number one reason that virologists and the World Health Organization (WHO) cite for the resurgence of polio in Nigeria is this: parents didn’t vaccinate their children.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), vaccinations against fourteen major diseases should be administered to children before the age of six. However, recent articles—including a national survey published in the medical journal Pediatrics—are reporting that at least one out of every ten parents in America are ignoring this vaccination schedule and opting not to vaccinate their children.

Many cite concerns about the safety of vaccinations—and with the interconnectedness the Internet has brought with it, those concerns have proven to be as virulent as the very diseases we’re trying to vaccinate against. A blogger in Montana, with no medical background, shares a story that carries as much weight as that of a research article by an internationally respected immunologist—and against that kind of poor judgment, there is no vaccine.

As a member of the pediatric medical community, I can urge parents to vaccinate their children but, ultimately, the decision lies with them. I can provide them with information—accurate, scientific, documented, and correct information—but all of that information can be undone by some televised talking head, armed with a few anecdotes, announcing that vaccinations are dangerous.

Here is what’s truly dangerous: children whose parents don’t adhere to the CDC’s vaccination schedule. An unvaccinated child is at a greater risk to become infected with those diseases—and once infected, they can infect others who lack the immunological support that comes with properly administered vaccinations. From there, the circle of infection could spread rapidly, engulfing schools, communities, and regions.

That is, of course, a bleak, worst-case scenario. But a version closer to the truth is this: your toddler and another child in their day-care facility didn’t get vaccinations. The other child comes down with pertussis and brings this highly contagious virus to day-care with him, passing it along to your unvaccinated toddler. Your toddler comes home with it, and passes it on—to his baby brother or sister, whom you have also chosen not to vaccinate. Or he passes it on to you.

The good news is this: the two older children will be very sick for weeks but will survive. The infant with pertussis may not be so fortunate.

When you choose to not vaccinate a child, you aren’t just putting that child at risk; you are putting everyone they come into contact with that child at risk. Each year, millions of children around the world—many in nations far less advanced than the United States—receive vaccinations according to the WHO’s schedule, which is nearly identical to the CDC’s. Public health efforts such as these are keeping polio, measles, diptheria and other diseases in check and have helped relegate smallpox to the laboratories of the CDC and a handful of similar health entities. And we now have important new vaccines against Rotavirus, a leading cause of death in many parts of the world. And against Meningococcus, the cause of epidemics of meningitis in this country. And now also the first vaccine ever, the HPV vaccine, to protect against cancer, cervical cancer in women and anal cancer in men.

Some have serious concerns regarding the safety of vaccines. As a parent myself, I can understand that, and I can even sympathize with them. However, as a pediatrician, I know the havoc that can be wreaked upon a family when an unvaccinated child becomes ill…or worse. The bottom line is this: if you have questions about a vaccine, ask as many medical professionals as you feel you need to, face-to-face, and get their opinion. Vaccines are safer now then they were in the 1940’s and 50’s when they were first mass produced.

There is also a concern that it is too hard on an infant’s immune system to give four or five vaccinations at one time. The reality is that our current vaccines are much purer than in the past and even with five vaccinations there is much less foreign proteins introduced to the body. Spreading out the vaccinations over three or four new visits to the doctor only increases the child’s discomfort and increases the risk that the schedule will never be completed.

Viruses and bacteria, unchecked by proper vaccinations, only grow stronger. True strength, though, comes from making decisions to ultimately protect the health and the future of your child, life’s most irreplaceable gift. Adherence to the CDC’s vaccination schedule is a decision you—and your child—will be happy you chose to live with.

Dr. Steven Kairys is the Chairman of Pediatrics at Jersey Shore University Medical Center. He can be reached at:

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