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Continuing our Conversation on Vaccines

February 01, 2012

As I mentioned , I attended an information session at my pediatrician’s office where we discussed vaccines. Dr. Federico Laham shared with us his insight on the topic. I wanted to share with you what I learned and address some of the questions you’ve asked.

Vaccines are a type of medicine that is given to protect from very serious, often deadly diseases. Vaccines are unique from other types of medicines in that they actually contain a weakened form of the virus or bacteria that causes the illness.

Does that sound scary? It does to me, but you’ve got to know a little bit about how our body’s immune system works to understand why this is a good thing.

Our immune system

When our body encounters a foreign substance (whether it is dirt, a new food or anything else in our environment) our immune system processes this new thing. If the immune system determines that this new thing is harmful to us, it will mount an army to fight this harmful substance. But, not just any army. It mounts an army specifically equipped to fight this particular bad thing. Our immune systems are so complex and so adept at fighting diseases that it makes special little warriors with special weapons designed specifically to target that disease. These little warriors are called antibodies.

The goal of a vaccine is to use the body’s immune response for protection by exposing it to a weakened version of the virus or bacteria. The virus or bacteria is too weak to cause the disease, but it prompts the immune system to make its special warrior antibodies with very specific weapons. These antibodies then are the blueprint by which the body can destroy this bad thing if it ever is exposed again.

So, when I say that a vaccine contains a weakened form of the virus or bacteria that causes the illness, it’s actually not scary. In fact, I think it’s genius. It’s like sending your troops into battle after you’ve already seen all of the enemy’s battle plans. You know what they are, where their weaknesses are and how to defeat them.

When we give our children vaccines, we are equipping them with the best weapons we have to fight very serious diseases. It is truly a remarkable gift to give.

As I say that, I know that you may be thinking, “Yes, but at what cost? Are they safe?”

Vaccine Safety

Before we talk about vaccine safety, let’s just level with one another. This is a very sensitive and emotional topic for a lot of people.

I believe that every parent wants the absolute best for their child. No parent wants to do anything to their child that can cause them harm. And, the reason this topic is so sensitive is that there have been so many mixed messages and a lot of confusing information. Parents are anxious because they just aren’t sure what is best for their child.

I honestly feel that the medical community has failed all of us on this issue. Not because they’ve given us bad information, but because they haven’t communicated the good information loud enough. Confusion has allowed doubt to creep in- doubt that our doctor has the best information and doubt about whether they truly have our best interest in mind.

The truth is, with all of the medical data and research that has been done on vaccines, the medical community KNOWS that vaccines are overwhelmingly safe. They keep our children out of the hospital; they save many, many lives.

The polio vaccine spares about 15,000 children per year of permanent paralysis due to the polio virus. Hemophilus influenza B (HiB) once killed 600 children every year and left many others with permanent injuries such as deafness, seizures and mental retardation. Since introduction of the vaccine, HiB has been nearly eliminated. And there are many other examples of the lives that have been saved because of vaccines. We have to remember these successes to keep it in perspective.

Are they 100% risk-free? Absolutely not. Nothing in life is risk-free. But, in all of medicine, we use scientific research and intensive, large-scale studies to determine whether the benefit of a particular therapy outweighs the risks, and vaccines are one example where the benefit for our children and our community as a whole is unequivocally greater than the risk.

There are very complex, effective systems for determining the safety and effectiveness of vaccines as well as ongoing monitoring that is able to detect even rare problems very quickly. It is a continually evolving science. And it works.

See an example of how a very rare problem with the previous rotavirus vaccine was identified in 1999.

You may be thinking, then, if this is true, “Why do I hear so many bad things about vaccines?”

My answer? All vaccine information is NOT created equal. Most information about vaccines that you find online and through various media outlets is not based in fact.

In our digital age, you can search any topic online and get a ton of information. But, is it the best information? Is it reliable? Is it true?

Many times what you are hearing are personal stories and personal feelings. Of course, these stories touch our hearts. When someone tells of the heartache they’ve experienced seeing their child suffer, and then they tell you they believe it is due to a vaccine, we believe them. We believe them because their passion and their concern for their child is real. But, because a well-intentioned person believes something and has a compelling story to tell does not and cannot take the place of truth.

If you have more questions, I encourage you to utilize these resources that are based on reliable medical data.

Vaccine Education Center

Immunization Action Coalition

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

I believe that your pediatrician is your best ally in keeping your child healthy. Talk with your pediatrician, and be honest about your concerns. Ask them, “Why?”. Ask them, “How do you know?”.  Ask them what they do for their own children.

We owe it to ourselves and our children to sort through all of the mixed messages and confusing commentary to determine what is truly best for our kids. It’s not an easy thing to do, but our kids are worth it.

We’ll continue this discussion on Monday, where we’ll address some of the common questions about vaccines such as the role of preservatives in vaccines, the relationship between vaccines and autism and alternative vaccine schedules.

Do you have more questions you’d like us to address about vaccines?