BY GABRIELLE EISENBERG
Vaccines. This single, two-syllable word has the ability to incite fear and debate in people of all ages. To children, it means a painful injection sometimes followed by a cartoon-covered bandage and a reward for their bravery. To parents, it means watching vigilantly for fevers and other reactions while additionally trying to filter through all of the horror stories they may have heard throughout their lives. Luckily, pediatricians are able to shed some light on the truths regarding parents’ concerns and help them decide the best course of action for their child. But to what extent do pediatricians feel they have a responsibility to ensure the vaccination of all of their patients?
Dr. Jeffrey Brosco, a pediatrician specializing in development and behavior at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, provided helpful insight on this issue. “Like almost all pediatricians, I feel a great obligation to make sure that all of my patients are fully vaccinated,” Brosco said. “Vaccines are the single most important public health advancement in the last one hundred years in terms of things that doctors do for individual patients. The number of diseases we used to worry about as pediatricians have decreased dramatically because of vaccines, so there is no doubt that of the things that I do in my office for patients, vaccines are probably the single most important.”
However, despite this claim, many parents remain fearful and unsure regarding their decision to vaccinate their children. Brosco said, “A lot of families have concerns such as, ‘What is this product? What are the side effects? Is this safe?’ When I talk to families, I explain to them that vaccines are remarkably safe products.” While there are risks associated with vaccines — as there are with most things — this risk is only minimal. Luckily, pediatricians like Brosco are able to expound on those risks and allay parents’ anxieties. Brosco explained, “There are risks to everything we do. There are risks to vaccines, and it is important for parents to know about that and ask about them. When I talk to them about it, I have them understand that if their goal is to protect the health of their child, then giving the vaccines is much more beneficial than not.” Immunizations are so vital that there are only a few rare instances in which a child should not be vaccinated. According to Brosco, there are “some medical conditions that typically are related to your immune system, so there are certain vaccines that you should not give to a child who has immunosuppression. There are a few other rare occasions, but by and large most children should be getting all of the recommended vaccines.”
If vaccines are play such crucial roles in promoting children’s health and well-being, then why do they elicit such staunch opposition? Besides certain religious and personal values, the main source of anti-vaccine hysteria is the claim that they cause children to develop autism. Autism is defined by Autism Speaks as a complex developmental disorder that is distinguished by difficulties with socialization and communication and repetitive actions. The alleged connection between autism and vaccines was first proposed by a British researcher named Andrew Wakefield. In the 1990s, Wakefield and his research team published a study in which they claimed to have discovered a link between the MMR (Measles, Mumps, and Rubella) vaccine and autism. However, it was discovered that there were many problems with Wakefield’s experiment, most notably that he used unreliable data and was being funded by attorneys who were suing vaccine companies. Unfortunately, before these errors were revealed, many parents stopped vaccinating their children. The result? As immunization rates decreased, childhood infection rates increased.
Subsequent studies have been conducted in order to finally end this controversial debate. Brosco explained, “Wakefield’s thesis was that, since your immune system is triggered by the MMR, you can find certain traces of measles in certain lymph nodes in the body. A group at Columbia University used much more sophisticated techniques to see if they could replicate the experiment and find traces of the effects of the MMR vaccine. What is fascinating about the way they did their research was they included people on their team who were believers in Wakefield’s thesis. They collaborated to come up with an experiment that they could all agree would answer their question, and that experiment showed that there is not a relationship. The facts are very clear that autism is not related to vaccines.”
Even when presented with all of the above information, some parents may still opt to not vaccinate their children. Regardless of their decision, the reasoning is the same: parents want only to protect their children and are resolved to do so in the manner they see most fit. However, it is reasonable to trust that a painful prick is the only thing to fear, and even that can be pacified by a pretty bandage and a lollipop.