Scientific studies on vaccine safety have never proven a link between vaccines – specifically measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) – and autism, yet the myth persists almost 20 years after the flawed research was published.
The fear that grew out of this flawed research has left children vulnerable to serious diseases that are vaccine preventable. Right now, this is playing out in Minnesota, where a cluster of unvaccinated children has been diagnosed with measles, and many of those ill children have been hospitalized.
Misinformation about vaccines stems from legend – not science. When parents listen to their health care provider and do their own research, they can make informed choices to protect their child from multiple diseases. It appears parents in Vermont are listening. In the current school year, 94 percent of Vermont’s children (total number is 86,270) in grades K-12 have received all required vaccines. This high rate of vaccination builds an invisible protective barrier around the community that helps to keep infectious diseases out.
Vaccine safety – a concern that we all share – is continuously assessed. Prior to approval by the Food and Drug Administration, manufacturers must demonstrate vaccine safety. Once a vaccine is approved and recommended for use in the U.S., it is monitored for safety using three different systems. In one of the systems, health care providers and individuals can report any suspected vaccine reaction to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System where experts analyze this information to determine if there are concerning trends. In the rare case that a vaccine is suspected to be harmful or ineffective, the recommendation for use would be rescinded.
Like everything in health care, no preventive measure is 100 percent safe. A small minority of people can experience a negative vaccine reaction that could result from something, such as an unknown allergy, but the majority are safely protected.
Because vaccines are so effective, many parents have never seen the diseases that they protect against. For example, in the early 1980s, about 20,000 young children were diagnosed each year with H. influenza type B (Hib). This is a serious illness that put many kids in the hospital with meningitis. Since the Hib vaccine was introduced in 1985, the number of cases has dropped by about 99 percent, making Hib disease a rare occurrence today.
A person’s perception of risk is directly influenced by their life experience. Parents want to protect their children, and vaccine risks may seem higher when they have no personal experience with vaccine preventable diseases. I’ve seen children acutely ill with meningitis and measles, and lost a cousin to polio at age 17. I’ve experienced firsthand the damage that a disease like polio can do and value the lifesaving power of vaccines.
In Vermont, most parents choose to vaccinate, and lawmakers support prevention. In the first year since legislation was passed to increase immunization rates among children, there was a 2 percent reduction in exemptions for non-medical reasons. If you want to find out more about your school or child care’s immunization rates, go to www.healthvermont.gov/immunizations.
The most effective public health advances follow policy change and education. Now our job is to maintain the protective barrier that high vaccination rates have built around Vermont’s children, and continue to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. And, if you believe in vaccination as most Vermonters do, speak up.
Christine Finley is the Vt. Department of Health’s immunization program manager.