Dear Dr. Lanny: The more I read on the Web about immunizations, the more concerned I get about the assault of all of those chemicals on my 7-week-old baby’s system. I’m considering asking my pediatrician to adjust the schedule of shots so my child doesn’t get so many at a time. I realize you think vaccines are great, but can’t they work just fine on a more extended schedule, while my baby builds up his own natural immunities and gets many from my breast milk?
A: It has been nearly 40 years since I began my three years of pediatric residency training in July 1974. It wasn’t very long before I saw my first death due to the bacterium Haemophilus influenzae, commonly known as H. flu. That certainly wasn’t the last H. flu death I saw. There were other children who survived, but with seizures and other serious neurologic injuries.
About 10 years ago I saw a 6-month-old named Daniel who had a high fever. He was rechecked the next day by my partner, who referred him to the Upstate Medical Center pediatric emergency department. He then began seizures and was diagnosed with Streptococcus pneumoniae meningitis. He survived but became totally deaf.
In 1986 the first vaccine to prevent infection caused by H. flu came on the market. This first vaccine was not very effective, but by 1990 the current version of this vaccine became available, and H. flu-caused diseases essentially disappeared in the United States.
Had Daniel been born a year later, he would have been given Prevnar, the vaccine used to prevent Strep pneumonia-caused disease, and he almost certainly would have normal hearing today.
These are examples of two vaccines that have come about in my professional life, and which have saved thousands of lives and prevented many more physical and mental consequences.
As you know, smallpox is gone. Polio is on the verge of disappearing. Incidences of tetanus, measles, German measles, diphtheria, and chicken pox have declined so much many Americans have only read about them in books. This has not happened by chance, or by antibacterial wipes, herbs or antibiotics. This remarkable decrease in the infectious diseases of childhood is the result of basic scientific study, dedicated researchers, government grants and altruistic volunteer parents, working together to make possible the vaccines we use today.
Certainly money has been made, and on occasion there has been less-than-total disclosure along the way. And, in recent years, direct-to-the-public marketing, never before seen for immunizations, has become part of television’s advertising barrage. This advertising hype is unlikely to strengthen the public’s faith in the pharmaceutical industry or physicians.
Many parents who do not wish to immunize their children feel that the risk of catching these diseases is minimal, so why do it. The risks are indeed less than they used to be, because parents all around you have immunized their children, causing what is known as herd immunity: immunity that results when a significant portion of the population is immunized, lending protection to those who are unimmunized.
I see immunization as part of the social contract of living in modern society. You cover your mouth when you cough, you buy more efficient appliances, you recycle, you donate blood and you immunize yourself and your children because we are all in this together, and these are the right things to do.
Should you be scared about “this assault of all these chemicals . . . on my baby’s system”? This is not an assault. This is a controlled way to have your baby’s immune system come in contact with and learn to protect itself against natural hazards in the world around us. Bacteria and viruses are ubiquitous in our environment, cannot be avoided and will most certainly outlast humans in the scope of time. Our immune system is “assaulted” daily by numerous respiratory or intestinal viruses, way greater in number than the immunizations your child is given, and the immune system does just fine in dealing with them.
As far as coming up with your own schedule, or Dr. Bob’s (Dr. Robert Sears), or that of anyone else who professes to know what is best: A staggering amount of effort has been, and continues to be, put into determining what immunizations can be given together, at what age does the immune system best respond, what are the best time intervals between immunizations, and the answers to many other questions. The present answers, imperfect as they may be, were not simply picked out of a hat. Smart and dedicated virologists and immunologists are continually refining the schedule of immunizations as new information emerges. Changing this schedule or reducing the amounts in a given immunization may not cause harm—but also may not protect your child.
Although it seems intuitively gentler to spread out the vaccine schedule, what it does is allow your child to be vulnerable to these illnesses for longer periods of time, and should he acquire any of these illnesses, he risks putting other children in jeopardy.
I have not approached the issue of side effects in this column, as that was not part of the question. I would say, in a few words, that I believe there is no significant worry about side effects, and there is no question that immunizations do not cause autism.
While I am hesitant about blindly accepting the word of “Authority,” I believe immunizations to be a remarkable step forward in public health and in human achievement.
Dr. Alan Freshman, father of two grown sons, practices at Syracuse Pediatrics. Consult your own physician before making decisions about your family’s health care. Send e-mail to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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