“I’m not anti-vaccine. I just want to wait on shots.”
As a pediatrician, I have heard those words countless times from concerned parents since the publication of a now-discredited 1998 research paper claiming a link between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. It has been a very long 17 years for healthcare professionals who have dedicated their careers to keeping children healthy.
And Dr. Edward Jenner, the English doctor credited with making the first vaccine in the late 1700s, is rolling over in his grave.
His smallpox vaccine saved millions of lives and eliminated the disease. Based on his work, modern medicine has created safer, effective vaccines that protect against epidemics – polio, measles, diphtheria, and more. Today, we even have vaccines to prevent three forms of bacterial meningitis. What’s not to like?
So how did we end up here, in 2015, with over 100 confirmed cases of measles, a disease that was declared eliminated in our country fifteen years ago? We have done this to ourselves, friends.
Yes, 113 countries around the world have better measles immunization rates for one-year-olds than we do. And because of this, the measles virus is making a comeback.
Let’s talk science. Your child is too precious to make such important decisions based on anything less. Unfortunately, too many parents make healthcare decisions based on emotion – emotion that is swayed by personal anecdotes, conspiracy theories, or even the crusades of B-list celebrities.
Over the past 17 years, parents have heard troubling stories about vaccinations. The now-discredited 1998 study raised concerns about the measles vaccine, and the FDA’s removal of mercury preservative in vaccines in 1999 would make any parent worry. And worry, they did. That’s because every major medical organization wanted to address the questions being raised before reassuring the public that everything was just fine.
When the Institute of Medicine finally released their report in 2004, showing that neither the measles vaccine nor the mercury-based preservative previously used in vaccines were linked to autism, it was too late. Some parents erred on the side of caution, instead of science. Immunization rates dropped.
Fortunately, because most parents do vaccinate their kids, American children have been well-protected from outbreaks of these diseases. But the falling immunization rates allow for ground zero moments like Disneyland.
You see, the decision to vaccinate your child impacts the health of other children, too. Choosing not to vaccinate your child is choosing to put your child and your community’s children at risk.
This concept is called herd immunity. And yes, we all belong to the herd. When 90-95% of “the herd” is protected, it is nearly impossible for a germ to cause an epidemic. Think of germs as rain. Vaccination is a raincoat. Even with a raincoat on, you can still get wet. You need an umbrella, too. The umbrella is “herd immunity.” Those who don’t vaccinate expect someone to share their umbrella when it rains. But society can only buy umbrellas together. And raincoats aren’t made for newborns – they need umbrellas!
If more than 10% of American parents choose to opt out of vaccines, these horrible diseases of bygone days return.
And birds of a feather flock together. Like-minded parents who don’t vaccinate their kids often live in the same community and send their kids to the same schools. With lower immunization rates, there is no herd immunity. These parents really are living in Fantasyland. They think the herd will protect their child, but their child is hanging out with the wrong herd.
If you are concerned about vaccinations, you are not a bad parent. You are a scared parent – and there is a difference. You are trying your best to protect your child.
As pediatricians, we get it. We love your kids. We want to protect them. We share a common goal. We also have the knowledge to help you to make wise healthcare decisions.
Vaccinating your child as soon as it is safe and effective to do so is vital. You are not protecting your child by waiting – you are leaving him or her unprotected at a time he or her is most vulnerable to these diseases. You have developed a trusting relationship with your pediatrician. Trust us.
Vaccines are safe and effective and the diseases they protect against really are your worst nightmare as a parent. In our careers, pediatricians have all had experiences taking care of children with vaccine-preventable diseases. We have great respect and appropriate fear of these infectious diseases.
I’m sickened that it takes children becoming ill to make parents realize the true risk of disease and the true benefit of vaccines. But that risk-benefit analysis has been skewed by the irony of vaccine success: parents have never seen these horrible diseases.
Now you have seen it.
I hope this outbreak will tip the scales of American social norms and make vaccination cool again. Let’s prevent what’s preventable.
Ari Brown, MD, FAAP, is a pediatrician, mom, and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. She is the co-author the bestselling “411” parenting book series including “Expecting 411: Clear Answers and Smart Advice for your Pregnancy,” “Baby 411,” and “Toddler 411.”