Childhood vaccinations are getting a lot of attention lately. The controversial topic is being discussed online, in research centers, physician’s offices, in parenting groups and even the Associated Press has done an extensive analysis of who’s opting out of getting school required shots for their kids.
A new survey of more than 200 pediatricians in Washington State revealed that about 61 percent of the doctors said they were OK with spacing out or delaying some vaccines when parents requested it.
The Associated Press discovered that more than half of the states have seen a least a slight rise in vaccine exemptions in the last five years, with the highest exemptions coming from the West and Upper Midwest.
In a survey published in the journal Pediatrics last month, 1- in- 10 parents say they have delayed or skipped some vaccines.
Why are so many parents and caregivers questioning the need or safety of common vaccines? The reasons vary.
One reason could be the amount of shots that are listed in the immunization schedule by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Family Physicians; 25 shots in the first 18 months of life.
Some parents are concerned that all these shots might have a negative effect on their child’s long-term health, or they believe that they simply aren’t necessary. One belief that is shared by some groups is that children should not be vaccinated against certain diseases at all, but that kids should be allowed, even encouraged, to catch those diseases. “Disease parties” are happening across the country where otherwise healthy children are deliberately exposed to contagious diseases such as chickenpox, measles, and mumps.
Distrust of pharmaceutical companies, the government, and religious objections are also reported as reasons some parents do not want to have their child vaccinated.
In a NPR-Thomson Reuters Health Poll, autism remains a top worry, with 21 percent of respondents saying they believe autism is linked to vaccines. About 7 percent believe in a link between vaccines and diabetes.
The evidence doesn't support either of those views. The chair of an independent panel that reviewed vaccine safety and issued a clean bill of health in late August said at the time: "The MMR vaccine does not cause autism. The MMR and the DTaP do not cause Type 1 diabetes. And the killed flu vaccine does not cause Bell’s palsey, and it does not trigger episodes of asthma."
With so many conflicted beliefs and attitudes being expressed, health care providers are feeling frustrated. Many are concerned that children are going to suffer the consequences of being exposed to serious and sometimes deadly infectious diseases.
While some doctors say they are willing to try an alternative schedule for vaccinations such as hepatitis B, chickenpox and polio, when parents made that request, almost all said they would not want to delay other vaccines such as Hib, which prevents meningitis and pneumonia caused by a bacteria; pneumococcal immunization, which prevents pneumonia and ear infections; and DTaP, which protects against diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough.
Also, when asked about the recommended vaccine schedule and their own kids, 96 percent of the surveyed pediatricians said they would stick to the schedule.
Some diseases such as polio, measles, diphtheria and whooping cough have been almost eliminated or are on the decline in the United States, but that doesn’t mean that they could not make a serious comeback. It’s happened in other heavily populated countries such as China and Russia.
Immunization expert Dr. Lance Rodewald with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it could happen here.
"Polio can come back. China was polio free for two decades, and just this year, they were infected from Pakistan, and there is a big outbreak of polio China now. The same could happen here," Rodewald said in an email to the Associated Press.
He cited outbreaks of Hib, a disease that can lead to meningitis, among the Amish who don't consistently vaccinate their children. Russia had a huge diphtheria outbreak in the early to mid-1990s, he said, because vaccine coverage declined.
So as the debate continues in some circles, on the necessity of vaccines, others continue to express concerns that vaccines are being devalued.
"The human mind has a hard time accepting things that didn't happen versus things that could happen," Dr. Raymond Fabius, chief medical officer at Thomson Reuters, tells NPR’s online health blog, Shots. "Vaccines get devalued because of their great effectiveness."
Older people still remember when polio was a much bigger worry than cancer, he says. Now, in this country, many people have never seen the toll polio and other infectious diseases took before widespread vaccination.
Vaccinations can help prevent the spread of infectious diseases. They also can lesson the intensity and the possibility of serious complications associated with disease.
The next time your child is due for his or her vaccine, remember that diseases that once crippled, disfigured and killed children are now controlled and even eliminated because these vaccines are now available. That’s something we can all be very grateful for.