Answers to common vaccine questions


Here are some of the most common questions I encounter regarding vaccines and my answers.  I’m writing this post, from a parent to a parent, because I want to equip you with accurate information to protect your child.

We give so many vaccines now and it seems like we are constantly adding more.  Isn’t this too much for my child’s immune system?  Isn’t it antigen overload? 

The immune system is very complex, with an entire field of immunology dedicated to its study.  Here is a short answer: If an infant gets 11 vaccines at once, it would use about 0.1% of her immune system. Quite simply, your child can be exposed to more antigens by playing on the carpet.

Isn’t it better to be exposed to the disease and develop a “natural immunity?”

I get this question mostly in regards to the chicken pox (varicella) vaccine.  An illness many parents remember getting as children.  My question in response is: why make your child suffer?  Chicken pox is miserable, with fever, cough, and awful itching and possible permanent scarring.  There are real complications from chicken pox including pneumonia, hospitalization, and deaths every year from this virus. True, initially we thought one vaccine was enough to bolster immunity; then, we later found a booster was necessary. Research has shown that one dose of the vaccine is 85% effective and two doses is 97-100% effective in preventing chicken pox.  And, by avoiding the real disease and virus by getting the vaccine, we can also prevent shingles.  And no one wants shingles – ouch!

Do the vaccines have mercury in them?

The only vaccine with mercury (or thimersol) is the influenza vaccine in multi-dose containers.  It contains less mercury than a tuna fish sandwich.  If you are still concerned, opt for the single dose vial mercury free preparation. Here is a great website with info about vaccine additives.

Do you support an alternative vaccination schedule?

Most physicians are willing to have a conversation about vaccine schedules with patients’ families.  Our goal is to establish a physician-patient partnership and ensure that all concerns are addressed and that the parents are confident with the collaborative medical decision.  I encourage patients to bring specific questions and the sources they have read to their doctor.

From the physician standpoint, we are concerned about unnecessarily delaying potentially life-saving vaccines. In addition, spacing out shots leads to additional visits to the doctor’s office, more pokes, and thus more trauma for the child and parents.  We are also concerned because the CDC vaccine schedule has been studied specifically for the immunization intervals recommended.  About half of parents who choose an alternative schedule make it up themselves and there is no scientific basis for their methods.  We don’t have any studies documenting the safety and effectiveness of alternative schedules.  Some patients rely on Dr. Robert Sears’ vaccine schedule, although even Dr. Sears himself states there is no research behind it.  Here is a good article, The Problem With Dr. Bob’s Alternative Vaccine Schedule, for patients who are considering his schedule.

Aren’t these diseases obsolete?

With recent news that a child with contagious measles was amongst 200,000 people at Super Bowl Village, we are reminded that these diseases and the threat of spread are real.  California reported over 9000 cases of whooping cough in 2010.  We have had pockets of outbreaks of other vaccine preventable diseases in the U.S. over the last year.  In our global community, other diseases are just a plane flight away, such as measles (30,000 cases confirmed in Europe in 2011), and polio.

What do you do for your children?

Both of my children receive all their immunizations according to the recommended schedule.  The more immunizations they receive, the more relieved I become that they are protected.

Erica Armstrong is a family physician who blogs at Mommy and Daddy MDs, Peanut and Sweet Pea.

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