There is an outbreak of measles in the United States, and along with it, a renewed debate over mandatory vaccines for preventable diseases. President Obama, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and too many pundits to list have all weighed in. All claim they are simply trying to protect children, and support the parents who love them. What is just rhetoric though, and what are the facts? "Vaccines protect our children against these dangerous and sometimes deadly diseases," says Andrew Pavia, MD, the chief of Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases for University of Utah Health. "As parents we want more than anything to protect our children."
Right now children entering school are required to get a number of vaccinations including the MMR that protects against measles, mumps and rubella. "These requirements are because of the risk not just to your child but also to other children in school, especially those who cannot be vaccinated or don't respond to vaccines," says Pavia. However, there are some exemptions for these "mandatory" vaccines. "Children who cannot safely be vaccinated for medical reasons are granted exemptions in all 50 states. Most states offer exemptions for religious reasons and some for philosophical exemptions," says Pavia. "In states where obtaining a philosophical exemption is easier than bringing your child in for vaccination, far more parents claim 'philosophical objections' than when they are required to review the decision carefully before being granted an exemption."
The vaccination debate isn't even as simple as to vaccinate or not. Among those who decide to vaccinate their children there are conversations about the recommended vaccine schedule, and if it is too taxing for a child's young body. "It is understandable to ask if getting several vaccines at the same time is 'too many challenges,'" says Pavia. "However, children are exposed to hundreds of new proteins during birth and every time they have a cold, put a toy in their mouth, or are exposed to dirt. Their immune systems are designed to deal with this, and the number of new proteins they are exposed to even when getting multiple vaccines is a fraction of what they are exposed to naturally. All of our research to date suggests that getting vaccines together is safe, and it is more humane than spreading out the number of injections."
Pavia says he understands why parents may have questions about vaccines, especially at a time when they are in the headlines. "Part of the problem is that the media likes to find a story with conflict, and they often look for people who oppose vaccines to provide a counterpoint, regardless of whether they are knowledgeable or credible," he says. "This gives a false impression that there is a lot of doubt or controversy when in fact, very little exists."
Pavia also says that while the public at large is exposed to the debate, very few are actually exposed to the reality of infectious disease. "Most parents with young children are now too young to remember the vaccine preventable diseases, and so they are no longer scared of diseases like measles, whooping cough or meningitis," he says. "As a young infectious disease doctor I knew these diseases well and saw the devastating effect on otherwise healthy children. When my children were younger I could not wait to get them their vaccines."
Parenting is full of hard decisions. Whether or not to protect them from disease shouldn't be one of them. Says Pavia, "Vaccines are the one of the best things we can do to protect them. It is simply a fact."