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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.

According to the CDC, the United States has the most effective and safest vaccines. U.S. law requires that several years of product testing for effectiveness and safety occur before a vaccine can be licensed. Once in use, vaccines are constantly monitored for safety and effectiveness, but they can cause side effects like other medications.

Fact 1: Vaccines are still needed to prevent disease.

Although many diseases no longer exist or are rare in the United States, 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 vaccination rates 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 (whooping cough) in the 1970s and 1980s after their vaccination rates declined. Because no vaccine is perfect, a drop in vaccination rates can increase the risk for disease within the community, particularly in infants or other children who are too young or unable to receive their vaccinations. This has happened in the U.S. with pertussis. The result has been the tragic deaths of a number of babies.  

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. These side effects rarely need any medication or other treatment. More serious side effects, such as a 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 follow-up 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. The doctor who did the original research has been stripped of his license to practice medicine because of unethical behavior, largely related to this study. Although the causes of autism remain unclear, there is no reliable research that connects this condition to any vaccine.

According to the CDC, scientific studies and reviews, including those by the AAP and the Institute of Medicine (IOM), have not found a relationship between vaccines and autism. The doctor who did the original research has been stripped of his license to practice medicine because of unethical behavior, largely related to this study.  

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. According to the recommendations developed by the American Academy of Pediatrics to help reduce the risk for SIDS and other sleep-related deaths in infants up to 12 months old, making sure that your child is fully immunized can help reduce the risk for SIDS by 50 percent. A decrease in SIDS cases may also 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, thimerosal, was removed from nearly all childhood vaccines because it contained small amounts of a form of mercury called thimerosal. Although no studies have shown any health problems from thimerosal in humans, the IOM recommended that it be removed from vaccines until further studies could examine any potential health risks. There is currently no evidence that thimerosal causes mercury poisoning or any other health problems.

A study published in the December 2003 issue of Pediatrics researched additives and preservatives that are used in the production of or 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 the general medical community believes in the safety of vaccines, parents should get information from a variety of trustworthy sources before making vaccine-related decisions.

Reliable sources of information include the AAP and the CDC.