I just met the parents of a beautiful newborn. I mentioned to them how critical it is to vaccinate their baby. They replied that after much reading on the Internet and talking with a few friends, they have been considering vaccine exemption for their baby. They also feel very strongly that vaccines “have their problems.”
Earlier this month, the CDC reported a final number of children deaths due to influenza during the last flu season. The number of deaths was 172. This was the highest number of reported deaths due to influenza in the last 10 years. Sadly, most of the deaths occurred in non-vaccinated children. As I was thinking about the CDC report, I mentioned to those parents that their baby needed several vaccines in the first 6 months of life and the influenza vaccine when the baby turns 6 months of age.
The truth is that as a pediatric cardiologist I often remind my patients and myself that influenza can be lethal, and immunizations are the best way to prevent the flu. Similarly, this subject of vaccine exemption also concerns other preventable diseases. Alarmingly, this is a growing trend. An increasing number of families are requesting non-medical vaccination exemption for their school-age and younger children.
A recent publication by Jacqueline K. Olive and colleagues In PLOS Medicine, revealed an increasing number of new spots “hot spots” of anti-vaccine activities in the US. These spots include several large metropolitan areas and other smaller counties. These researchers also found an increased rate of measles, mumps, and rubella among kindergarten children in those counties with high rates of vaccine exemption.
Families who seek vaccine exemption for their kids do so as “a philosophical/ personal or a religious belief.” The law in all 50 states is that vaccination is required for school-age children. Most states allow for religious exemption. Only 18 states allow exemptions due to personal beliefs. So, the focus of Olive’s report was mostly on those 18 states. From the report, the rate of vaccine exemption seem to level off in half of the 18 states, while this rate continue to increase in one third of the 18 states.
Parents who request personal exemptions do so often out of concern with vaccine safety, or unwanted short- and long-term complications from vaccines. So at times health care providers are taken by surprise and disturbed, particularly if we are unable to convince parents that vaccines are safe and good for their kids. Pediatricians and other healthcare providers often feel disarmed to address these parental concerns, as these parents often present strong arguments outlining how vaccines lead to other diseases. The truth is that there is established and well supported data showing that vaccines are safe and effective in preventing diseases. Vaccines do not cause autism or ADHD. Vaccines save lives.
In 2016, after a measles outbreak in California (from 2014-2015), the legislature decided to do away with vaccine exemptions altogether. There is an argument to be made to have these types of policies in place, as vaccine coverage in school-age children rose significantly right after the California legislature did away with vaccine exemption. The highest percentage of vaccinated children will reduce the opportunity for a disease to spread. Vaccine prevents close to 4 million deaths worldwide.
There are several online tools to help parents understand the greater impact of vaccine in our lives. Vaccines protect our kids and other kids around them. Vaccines protect us (grown ups) and protect those around us. There has been a 99 to 100 percent reduction in the number of cases from measles, mumps, rubella, polio, tetanus and others when we compared last century numbers and today’s. Society gets $18 in return for every $1 invested in vaccine programs. Refusing to vaccinate a child will create pockets or spots where disease can spread leading to some of the outbreaks that we have seen recently in many of our communities.
A child’s immunization schedule is tailored to address a baby’s best immune response in an age-appropriate manner. Parents should be reassured of the science. Vaccines are designed to protect. Non-medical/philosophical vaccine exemption, although on the rise, should be discouraged.
Vernat Exil is a Pediatric cardiologist at UNM. Please send your questions to him at firstname.lastname@example.org