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Glenn D. Braunstein, M.D. Headshot

Vaccinations: Still Amazing After All These Years

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Medically speaking, the good old days aren't something a physician gets sentimental about, unless there's a soft spot in his or her heart for the Middle Ages when small pox wiped out most of Western Europe; or the nineteenth century, when typhoid had its way with millions of children; or after World War I when influenza practically killed more people than the war itself. And let's not forget the 1950's when parents were paralyzed with fear about their kids ending up in an iron lung from polio. These were terrible diseases we've conquered thanks to vaccines. Failing to take advantage of centuries of medical advancements is like turning back the clock on our collective health. For good reason, vaccines have been called the most important public health intervention in history, after safe drinking water.

And as far as all the scares and controversy about vaccinations lately, let's not confuse sound medical practice with making healthy choices on a visit to Whole Foods, especially since the assumption that vaccines aren't pure and natural is inaccurate. The power of vaccines is that they are made from are the same natural germs that cause a disease. They protect children by helping prepare their bodies to fight off serious, and potentially, deadly diseases,

Not having a child vaccinated puts all kids at risk: the children who don't receive protection against a disease, and the children around them who are now exposed to a disease by way of the vulnerability of their unvaccinated friends. Diseases like diphtheria, measles and influenza type b are like Jason in the Friday the 13th series -- they never really die. They lurk beneath the surface ready to make a frightening return, the way whooping cough did in Japan in the 1970's when parents stopped vaccinating for it, or the 2005 outbreak of measles in Indiana following the refusal of parents to have their children vaccinated.

Vaccines can have side effects. These are generally minor, usually redness or soreness localized in the area where the shot has been given, and usually only for a day or two. True allergic reactions also can occur and may include hives, difficulty breathing, wheezing or dizziness, and in rare cases can be more serious, which is why it's important to tell your provider about any allergies your child may have.

One of the most intense controversies concerns the association between vaccination and autism. This was started by a 1998 "early report" on 12 children with bowel difficulties and behavioral problems, and it was noted that eight of the children had the onset of the behavioral problems after receiving the MMR (Measles, Mumps, Rubella) vaccine. The authors of that Lancet study suggested that there was a link between this type of autism and the vaccine. Not only have multiple, subsequent, in-depth studies shown that there is no cause-and-effect association between vaccines and autism, but the original article was retracted by the Lancet and the lead investigator was censured by U.K. General Medical Council's Fitness to Practice Panel. Nevertheless, it is likely that this association still will be blamed for causing autism, since parents understandably want to find a reason why their child has developed autism and often resort to making a connection between the timing of the onset of the condition and the environmental exposures that the child had before the onset. Since children get vaccinations and children become autistic, there may be a temporal relationship, but it is not a cause-and-effect one.

Kids in the U.S. are routinely vaccinated for: diphtheria, measles, mumps, Hib (haemophilus influenza type b), influenza, whooping cough, pneumococcal disease, polio, rotavirus (the most common cause of severe gastroenteritis), rubella (German measles), tetanus (lockjaw) and chickenpox (vericalla). Because of immunizations, most of these diseases are now at their lowest levels in history, with an 83-100 percent decrease rate in cases per year.

One concern raised is that kids receive too many vaccines--being vaccinated against as many as 14 different diseases before they are 2-years old. What is great about that is that there are 14 diseases that won't ruin your child's life and the litany of complications that a having sick child poses. Most kids are exposed to greater numbers of antigens in the environment than there are in all the recommended vaccinations, combined. Because their immune systems are so robust, it's safe for children to have multiple vaccines on the same day. Click here for http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/recs/schedules/default.htm#childThe Childhood Immunization Schedule for the United States from the Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Vaccines are so important, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has just made a pledge to donate $10 billion in the coming decade to bring vaccines to the world's poorest countries. The Gate's commitment: "We must make this the decade of vaccines," and added that "innovation will make it possible to save more children than ever before." Let's make sure we keep our own kids in the mix.