Benefits and Risks of Children’s Vaccines

All parents are urged to vaccinate their children early to prevent common childhood diseases – and it seems to have paid off. Today, American children are fortunate to have escaped many common childhood illnesses that plagued previous generations. Most of us assume that “once vaccinated, always protected.” But is this really true? Do vaccines confer the same protection afforded by the disease itself?

Childhood vaccines have become an accepted part of American life and recommended by doctors, school officials, and the U.S. government. But a vocal minority has begun to question the effectiveness of vaccines, pointing to the documented evidence of severe, and sometimes irreversible, injuries that are sometimes caused by vaccination. Is it time to reexamine our vaccine policies?

Vaccines are designed to mimic our own “natural active immunity”, which develops when we are exposed to and recover from certain diseases. They are created from fragments of either a “live” bacteria or virus that has been damaged or weakened, or a “killed” form of the disease, which has been inactivated. When vaccines are given (either orally or by injection) the body’s immune system recognizes these new substances as an “invasion”, and creates antibodies that are developed to fight that unique disease. Once these antibodies have been created, they will forever be part of the immune system’s memory, and may be reactivated if the disease should present itself again in the future.

Although vaccines are an attempt to artificially stimulate this antibody mechanism, there is evidence that the immunity created by vaccines is not as permanent. While it is virtually certain that we gain lifelong protection from diseases such as measles or chicken pox when we contract these illnesses naturally, evidence now suggests that immunizations may wear off over the course of several years.

Without a doubt, the development of vaccines marked a milestone in the history of medicine. Prior to 1798, when Edward Jenner developed the first vaccine for smallpox, there was little that doctors could do to treat major epidemics. Cholera, smallpox, and typhoid are just a few of the diseases that swept through the world, leaving behind thousands of casualties. When vaccines were developed, physicians felt that they had found a powerful tool in preventing the spread of disease. However, as time passed, public health officials began to look upon vaccines not only in terms of prevention, but as tools to eradicate certain diseases.

Today, this goal has been reached for certain diseases. For instance, in 1980, the medical community proudly announced that smallpox had finally been eradicated worldwide largely due to immunization efforts. In 1993, Finland announced that measles, mumps, rubella had been successfully eliminated as a result of immunization. These successes have spurred officials to target other diseases, such as polio, for extinction.

Historically, vaccines have played an important role in reducing the spread of serious diseases. Eventually, it may even be possible to eliminate the threat of other diseases worldwide. So why have vaccines generated controversy?

Although extraordinarily effective, vaccines have not been without their problems. There have been occasions when vaccines have been developed and declared safe, only to result in tragic consequences – the outbreak of polio from the Salk vaccines in 1955 and the swine flu epidemic in 1976 are two examples.

Today, vaccines are required to go through lengthy and rigorous testing procedures by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before they are approved for licensing. But even FDA acknowledges that there is always room for improved safety. As with any new product, problems may arise that cannot be anticipated in pretesting.

In order to identify any problems related to immunization, the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) was established. This program is designed to enable anyone – physicians, vaccine manufacturers, patients, or the parents of patients – to report adverse events that might be associated with vaccines.

It is nearly impossible to predict whether a child will have a bad reaction to an immunization. And physicians acknowledge that some vaccines, such as tetanus, pose less of a risk than other vaccines, such as pertussis or polio.

In most cases, reactions to vaccines are relatively mild, if they occur at all. Swelling, slight fever, and soreness are common experiences after any immunization. However, there have been instances of severe side effects – such as brain injury and in rare cases, death. In 1986, the government set up the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program as a “no-fault” way to compensate families whose children had suffered severe injury due to immunization. Guidelines have been established to determine eligibility for receiving compensation. During the 1995 fiscal year, 3142 claims were processed; since 1990, over $500 million has been paid in compensation.

The decision to immunize children against serious diseases is one that parents should explore carefully, weighing both benefits and risks. Consulting your child’s pediatrician, as well as other sources, such as the Vaccine Information and Awareness and the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) will help parents to make educated decisions.


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