Vaccines are one of the biggest public health success stories in the world. They have contributed to a significant reduction in loss of human life over the past century. They have reduced the economic burden of disease on countries around the world. Yet, in recent years, there has been increasing skepticism about their importance and effects. As a result, well-meaning parents, who believe themselves to be acting in the best interest of their children, are declining to have their children vaccinated and leaving them vulnerable to devastating illnesses.
In countries like The Bahamas where immunization rates are high, many vaccine-preventable diseases don’t have the visibility they had in decades past and many parents don’t see or hear about actual cases and just how dangerous these diseases can be. This, in addition to widely accessible conflicting and often inaccurate information about vaccines, has contributed to a decline in early childhood vaccination rates over the past decade. With the decline in vaccination rates, the world is witnessing a re-emergence of deadly diseases once thought to have been eradicated. There have been deadly outbreaks of measles and polio in developed countries within the past few years.
April 24-30 is World Immunization Week – an initiative by the World Health Organization (WHO) geared toward raising awareness of the importance of vaccines in preventing a myriad of infectious diseases and emphasizing their role in improving public health globally. The WHO and public health professionals around the world use this week to raise awareness, dispel myths, and educate parents in the interest of public health.
What we’ve observed as healthcare professionals is that a little misinformation can go a very long way with potentially devastating consequences. It’s important that parents are armed with correct information, so that they can make decisions that are truly in the best interest of their child.
One of the major concerns voiced by parents is whether or not vaccines are safe. The short answer is yes, they are. Vaccines, like all other medicines and therapies, have a potential for side effects. The most common ones are fever, pain and swelling at the injection site. Some have been associated as a rare occurrence with the development of self-limiting rashes. Others have elicited allergic reactions in children who may be allergic to components used in developing the vaccine. The important thing to note is that none of these effects are life-threatening and that all vaccines undergo rigorous testing for safety and efficacy before being used on the general public.
Some parents and anti-vaccine activists promote the idea that natural immunity is healthier and more effective than vaccine mediated immunity. However, vaccines allow the recipient to build immunity without the damaging effects that vaccine-preventable diseases can have. These diseases can cause serious health problems and can even be life-threatening. For example, Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) can cause intellectual disability and measles can lead to death. All of these effects can be avoided by simply getting vaccinated.
Perhaps the most persistent myth regarding vaccines over the years is that vaccines cause autism. This claim can be traced back to a discredited and retracted 1997 study that falsely linked the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism. Unfortunately, this flawed study incited a storm of misinformation that persists as a dark cloud over the medical community and an impediment to public health today. Hundreds of studies across the globe have since shown that there is no connection, yet a 2016 study in the United States revealed 16.5 percent of parents or primary caregivers of autistic children still believe that vaccines caused their child’s autism.
While a majority of parents recognize the importance of vaccines in the overall health and well-being of their children, the steady flow of misinformation over the years has resulted in a slow decline in vaccination rates that could be detrimental to public health. Vaccines are not the enemy, misinformation is. If you have questions about vaccines, their safety, or their efficacy, the best place to start is by having a conversation with your child’s pediatrician. Remember, we’re here to help you raise happy and healthy kids.
• Dr. Tamarra Moss is a pediatrician committed to helping you raise happy and healthy kids. You can find her at Dr. Carlos Thomas & Pediatric Associates in New Providence, Lucayan Medical Center in Grand Bahama, or on Instagram @mykidsdoc242.