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Childhood Immunizations: Get the Facts
If you are the parent of a young child, you may be confused about the safety of immunizations. You may have heard that vaccines cause life-threatening side effects or can lead to other diseases. Or you may have read that vaccines are not necessary anymore.
“Many of these myths are perpetuated on the Internet,” says Robert S. Baltimore, M.D., a professor of pediatrics at Yale University and spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). “In some cases, it’s been a problem of educating people. Numerous papers and studies have backed up the safety and success of vaccines.”
Fact 1: Vaccines are still needed to prevent disease.
While many diseases no longer exist in Canada, they are common in other parts of the world. Because traveling is so widespread, these diseases can still be passed on to those who are not vaccinated. This has happened in the past. A drop in vaccines led to an epidemic of measles in the United States between 1989 and 1991, causing several deaths and cases of permanent brain damage. And Japan, Sweden and Britain suffered outbreaks of pertussis in the 1970s and 1980s after their vaccination rates declined.
“We have a social contract,” says Dr. Baltimore. “Vaccinating our children keeps these diseases from coming back and protects those few who cannot be vaccinated or who are not protected by vaccines.”
Fact 2: Vaccines are safe and rarely cause serious side effects.
Most of the side effects from vaccines are mild, such as a sore arm or a low fever. Giving your child acetaminophen can reduce these side effects. More serious side effects, such as seizure or a severe allergic reaction, can occur but are extremely rare. In fact, the risk for such serious side effects is lower than the risk of your child catching the disease if he or she is not vaccinated. If you have any questions about a specific vaccine and your child’s risk, talk with your child’s health care provider.
Fact 3: Vaccines do not cause conditions such as autism or diabetes.
A study published in the Lancet in 1998 suggested a link between autism and the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. At the time it was published, this study was widely disputed by medical experts, who claimed the research was flawed. Since then, other larger and more well-controlled studies have found no connection between autism and the MMR vaccine. And, in a recent issue of Lancet, 10 of the 13 authors of the 1998 study published a retraction, stating that the data were insufficient to draw a link between vaccinations and autism. Although the causes of autism remain unclear, there is no reliable research that connects this condition to any vaccine.
Some people have also questioned whether childhood vaccinations may lead to an increased risk for type 1 diabetes. A 10-year study of 739,634 children, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found no difference in the risk for type 1 diabetes between vaccinated and unvaccinated children.
Fact 4: Immunizations do not cause sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
SIDS is every parent’s worst fear. And although the cause of SIDS is still not known, research has shown no link between vaccinations and SIDS. In fact, one study showed that infants who were immunized were at a decreased risk for SIDS. And, despite an increase in vaccinations, the rate of SIDS has decreased by 50 percent over the last 21 years. The drop in SIDS cases may be because more parents and caregivers put infants to sleep on their back and limit their exposure to tobacco smoke.
Fact 5: Vaccines do not contain harmful additives.
Vaccines often contain additives to help make them safer. One additive, thimerosol, was removed from nearly all childhood vaccines because it contained small amounts of mercury. Although no studies have shown any health problems from thimerosol in infants, the Institute of Medicine recommended that it be removed from vaccines, in order to limit children’s exposure to mercury.
A study published in the December 2003 issue of Pediatrics researched additives and preservatives that are added to childhood vaccines. The researchers concluded that none of these additives had been found to be harmful. The only risk was for children who had severe allergies to eggs or gelatin.
Although Dr. Baltimore believes in the safety of vaccines, he encourages parents to get information from various sources and make up their own decision. “My bottom line is for parents to be informed.” But, he cautions, “it’s important to separate fact from opinion.”
Reliable sources of information include the
Public Health Agency of Canada
Ministère de la santé et services sociaux du Québec
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