Thursday, February 19, 2015

Vaccines Keep Our Kids Safe

The measles outbreak traced to Disneyland this winter has created a great resurgence in the "vaccinate or do not vaccinate" debates that surface relatively often in parenting discussions. The media has been covering different angles, from encouraging everyone to get their shots to heart-rending stories of children purportedly injured by a vaccine. It's a hot topic.

I did an Ask-Me Monday video on vaccines a couple of months ago, coincidentally just before the Disneyland outbreak. (See it here.) Predictably, people who are against vaccines sought out my video so that they could pick a fight. I chose to engage calmly, state my opinions, and be done with it. I know that throwing facts at people doesn't change their minds. Indeed, there have been studies on this very topic, and the more you argue, the more people dig in their heels.

The vibe I get from parents who are genuinely concerned and thoughtfully considering whether they should consent to having their children vaccinated - as opposed to being solidly in the "anti-vaxxer" camp - is that they are trying to keep their children safe. They hear stories of children who suffered brain damage, organ damage, or death from a rare reaction or complication of receiving a vaccine. They don't want to take the risk for their own children. The word "autism" gets tossed around. We see link after link to blog posts and opinion pieces about how we're all being duped by the pharmaceutical companies, how there's a great conspiracy in the FDA and the CDC to force all of us to be injected with poison, and how a child was perfectly healthy and typical before they got the DTaP or the MMR shot, and afterward showed signs of brain damage or a blood disorder or had uncontrollable seizures.

Well, obviously we don't want to become involved with or duped by government conspiracies! And don't you know that there's formaldehyde in those shots?!

What no one bothers to say when making these arguments is that there's another side. There's the parents whose newborn babies were exposed to measles or whooping cough because of an unvaccinated child in their community. There are the children who contract these diseases and become severely ill and spend weeks or months in the hospital. There are the babies who die a slow, horrible death wracked by rib-cracking coughs until they turn blue from lack of oxygen and suffocate in their own mucus. There are the children left paralyzed by polio or suffer encephalitis from measles. There are the women who lose pregnancies because of rubella infection.

Underneath all the sob stories and "what if's" are parents who are just trying to figure out what is best for their own children. How do we protect our kids and our families? What should we be afraid of? What are the real risks?

I'm going to take this discussion outside of vaccines to look at a bigger picture. There is risk in everything we do every day. Indeed, one of the riskiest things we do every day with ourselves and our children is drive our cars. Did you know that car accidents are one of the leading causes of death and injury for children? Car accidents. But I bet most of you put your kids in the car almost daily. I know I do. School and daycare drop-offs and pickups, shopping, errands, visiting friends, grabbing a bite to eat, playdates, road trips, vacations, all sorts of reasons to get in the car.

And do you, each and every time you get in the car, double check that your kids are in appropriate child restraints, installed and buckled correctly? Do you take your car in for regular maintenance? Are your brakes and tires in good repair? Do you have a hands-free device for your cell phone, or do you put your cell phone away while you drive so as to avoid distractions? Do you glance in your mirrors and check your blind spot every time you change lanes?

So, what if we decide the risk of driving is too high and we stay home? There's a risk of earthquakes or windstorms. In the winter, ice could bring a tree branch down on your house. If you live in tornado country, you could end up trapped under the rubble of your home. If you live in the hurricane zone, another Katrina could turn your life upside down. You could forget about the pot of soup on the stove and set your house on fire. You could slip in the bathroom and hit your head on the toilet and knock yourself out.

Things can happen anywhere. And we can't live our lives in fear. It's impossible to account for every possible scenario. It's impossible to be completely, 100% safe, all the time.

So, we do the best we can with the information we have. We weigh the risks and benefits as we understand them. And if doing something has risk and not doing something also has risk, it is very hard to choose. But if the goal is to keep our kids as safe as possible, it's important to do what we can to minimize risk in all situations. Like buckling them correctly in a properly installed, appropriate car seat when on the road, and having them wear a helmet when they ride a bike, and putting a fence around the pool.

When it comes to medical procedures, and vaccines specifically, certainly, it is much easier not to do something. The passive route feels less risky. If I don't give my baby this injection, then it can't hurt him!

It's important, then to consider the other half of the equation. If you don't give your child this injection and he contracts measles, say, through contact with a tourist at Disneyland, then measles can hurt him. And not just him. Measles can affect him, and his siblings, and his cousins, and his friends, and his friends' families, and their friends, and at some point, someone will die. Maybe it won't be your kid. Maybe your kid will miss two weeks of school and recover and that's the end of it, and you'll be relieved that everything is fine. But maybe some other baby down the line of contagion isn't so lucky.

And if you do give your child that injection, and you go to Disneyland and come in contact with a tourist who is carrying measles, and your child doesn't get measles, well, then clearly you made the right choice in getting that shot!

It's not simple. And yet, it is. Because if we look at the research, at the documented risks, at the statistics, it becomes clear that the risk of contracting a disease, and the risks of complications from that disease, are higher than the risks associated with the vaccine. If we look past the sob stories and the fear-mongering and the impassioned pleas, if we look at the cold, hard facts, at the science, it's purely, radically simple.

Vaccinations work.

Protect your children and all of the people your children come in contact with every day.

Get vaccinated.


Complications of measles:
Note: 30% of measles cases experience some complication, such as diarrhea, ear infection, or pneumonia. Pneumonia is the leading cause of death from complications of measles. The risk of death from measles is 0.2%, or 2 in 1000.

Adverse reactions to MMR Vaccine:
Note: 5 to 15% of susceptible persons may develop a high fever but be otherwise asymptomatic. As for serious complications, 1 in 30,000 may develop thrombocytopenia (a blood disorder in which blood does not clot), but the risk of thrombocytopenia due to measles infection is much higher than the risk of thrombocytopenia due to the measles vaccine. Other risks are so rare as to almost be incalculable.

Yes, it is possible to have an adverse reaction to a vaccine. It's important to acknowledge that. But it is far, far more likely to have complications from the disease itself.

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