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Vaccine Misinformation

Immunization Basics

By

Updated January 22, 2012

Many parents who don't vaccinate their children say that they are making an informed decision and did their research.

Where do they get their research?

Often it is from opponents of vaccines like the National Vaccine Information Center, which claims to be "America's Vaccine Safety Watchdog." What this organization doesn't reveal is that much of their research is skewed to present a very anti-vaccine point of view. For example,their report on whooping cough is meant to persuade parents that it's no longer a serious disease, thanks to modern medicine. For example, they present following data, from two countries, to try and illustrate that the disease is less lethal than it used to be:

They report:

  • 265,000 cases of pertussis in the U.S. with 8,000 deaths in 1934 (a death rate of 3%)
  • 99,000 cases of pertussis in Britain with only 23 deaths in 1977 (a death rate of .2%)

That makes it sound like pertussis isn't that bad, right? However, even with modern medicine, pertussis is still killing people and leading to hospitalizations. Bottom line: Would you want to risk your child being hospitalized for a vaccine-preventable disease?

Let's take a look at the breakdown of the data during a 1977-1979 outbreak in the U.K. that was a result of low immunization rates. More than 102,500 people developed the disease during the outbreak -- even during the era of modern medicine.

Of the people affected:

  • 4% of patients were hospitalized (4,100 people)
  • 40% of hospitalized patients were less than 6 months old (1,640)
  • 1% of hospitalized patients required intensive care (410)
  • 33% of patients who required intensive care had complications (135)
  • complications of patients who required intensive care included pneumonia (12%) and seizures (5%)

Also, the true numbers were likely higher -- some medical experts think that pertussis deaths were simply undercounted and blamed on other infectious respiratory illnesses. This is thought to be likely because the counts for those other illnesses rose for no good reason during the same time period.

Similar patterns were also seen during another pertussis outbreak in the UK in 1982 to 1983.

Likewise, in the United States, pertussis continues to be a problem. From 1977 to 2000, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported::

  • 29,134 pertussis cases
  • 8,390 pertussis cases (29%) were infants under 12 months old
  • 20% of pertussis cases required hospitalization
  • 63% of infants less than 6 months old required hospitalization and had a mortality rate of about 1%
  • complications of those who required hospitalization included pneumonia (12%), seizures (1%), and encephalopathy
  • there were 62 pertussis- related deaths, almost exclusively among younger infants

This was well before the introduction of the Tdap (tetanus - diphtheria - acellular pertussis) booster for teens and adults, which will hopefully decrease these pertussis rates.

While the NVIC is anti-vaccine, they don't actually come out and say that you shouldn't give your kids the pertussis vaccine (DTaP, Tdap). Instead, after a very long list of suggestions of things that put a child at "high risk" and reasons to not get vaccinated, they recommend that parents "be equally concerned and knowledgeable about the risks of pertussis disease as we are about the risks of pertussis vaccine."

Most medical professionals agree: The risks of pertussis are clear and the importance of vaccinating your child outweighs any risks of immunization. Even if the risk of death aren't as high as they once were, children, especially infants, still die from pertussis. And the rate of hospitalization for those who are infected is high. Without routine pertussis vaccinations, pertussis cases would rise greatly and would likely overwhelm our emergency rooms, hospitals, and doctor's offices.

More Risks of Not Vaccinating

Although not vaccinating your child seems like a personal decision, often because of unproved fears of vaccine safety, it actually affects everyone around you.

Pertussis is an especially good example of this, as most of the severe cases of pertussis occur in infants under 6 months old, before the age that they can complete the 3 dose primary series of the DTaP vaccine that can protect them from the Bordetella pertussis bacteria. So if your unvaccinated child gets pertussis, he could infect a newborn or infant who just hasn't had the chance to get fully immunized and protected yet.

And since vaccines aren't 100% effective, if your unvaccinated child gets pertussis, it raises the chances that other children whose vaccines didn't work will get pertussis too.

That is not to say that there are no risks to getting a vaccine or that all fears are unjustified. But many fears are overblown by media reports of a vaccine controversy that doesn't really exist, anecdotal reports of vaccine reactions, and unproven links to conditions like autism.

Do your research, but don't try to simply find a website or book that says what you want to hear and justifies your decision to not vaccinate your child.

In addition to talking to your pediatrician, these resources should help you make an informed decision:



Sources:

CDC. MMWR. International Notes Pertussis -- England and Wales. December 03, 1982 / 31(47), 629-31.

J D Cherry, L J Baraff, and E Hewlett. The past, present, and future of pertussis. The role of adults in epidemiology and future control. West J Med. 1989 March; 150(3): 319–328.

Karras DJ. Pertussis—United States, 1997-2000 [commentary]. Ann Emerg Med. July 2002;40:117-119.

National Vaccine Information Center. Whooping Cough.

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