Vail Health & Wellness: The vaccination debate
Ryan Summerlin September 10, 2012
The discussion surrounding vaccinations is not a simple debate than can be divided into a list of pros and cons. Some argue there shouldn’t be a debate at all, and that the risks of not getting vaccinated far outweigh the possible side affects. Yet others are critical about the need for vaccines and decide to not immunize their child according to the recommended schedule. We talked to local health professionals to discover the truth about immunizations, and what parents should know so that they can make the best decision for their own child.The right resourcesRebecca Larson is an epidemiologist with Eagle County Public Health, which works with the Eagle County school district to administer immunizations to school-aged children and educate the community about vaccine-preventable diseases.”The risks of vaccines are very, very minimal – one in one millionth in a lot of cases – and the benefits of vaccines are huge,” Larson said. “By choosing not to protect your child with vaccines, you’re putting your child at risk for 16 different vaccine- preventable diseases.”Information regarding vaccinations is readily available, but often what people find online can be confusing and misleading. “I think the more you know, it definitely helps,” said Blair Slott, registered nurse with the Eagle County School District. “But you have to get the correct knowledge base. You have to know which resources are (valid) and not just start googling.”One of the most common topics found with a quick Internet search is the possible connection between vaccines and autism. This partially stems from a 1998 study published in the British medical journal Lancet, which noted in most cases, symptoms of severe developmental regression in children occurred after the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) immunization. Although the study did not prove a casual link between autism and the MMR vaccine, some began to question the safety of vaccines. Controversy continued until 2004, when Lancet and 10 of the original collaborators on the study formally retracted their support for the autism hypothesis, believing the results to be falsified. Larson said the link between autism and vaccines has been disproved many times since this 1998 report.Opting outDespite the research, some parents still choose to not vaccinate their children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that for the 2011-’12 school year, kindergarteners in Colorado had an overall immunization exemption rate of 5.6 percent. Compared to other states, Colorado ranks fourth for exemptions. According to Larson, the higher exemption rate in Colorado is due to a number of factors. Parents can opt out for medical, religious or philosophical reasons. Other states might only allow medical or temporary exemptions. Larson said in states where it is easier to get a waiver, exemption rates tend to be higher. While some may look at Colorado’s exemption rate and see cause for concern, not everyone agrees that non-medical exemptions are a bad thing. “People make decisions, and they don’t have to tell us what their decisions are,” Slott said. “Sometimes parents will do all the immunizations but they’ll do it at their own rate.”Just because an exemption is signed does not mean that their kids are not vaccinated. It might mean that they’re doing it at their own pace.”Delling Zing is one local parent who has chosen to not follow the recommended schedule of vaccinations for his four-year-old son. Zing’s son has had some vaccinations, but hasn’t had most of the ones recommended for his age group. As the owner of an organic grocery and health food store in Edwards, Zing believes in boosting the body’s immune system through natural methods. Zing’s main concern isn’t the vaccines themselves, but the agents used to preserve them, such as thimerosal, which contains mercury. Zing makes sure his son does not have vaccines with thimerosal in them.”You don’t want your child to get any illness whatsoever,” Zing said. “But it’s not the vaccine that causes the problem, it’s what’s in the vaccine to make it stable… I’ve had customers tell me that their kids were fine until they got vaccines.”According to the CDC, thimerosal has not been used as a preservative in most vaccines routinely recommended for children since 2001. The CDC also states that there is “no convincing evidence of harm caused by the low doses of thimerosal in vaccines.”Still, Zing feels that parents should have a choice when it comes to immunizations. When he received vaccinations as a kid, there was little talk about the risks or side effects. Zing and his wife make a point to discuss vaccination options with their pediatrician.”Doctors want safe, healthy patients, too,” Zing said. “They consider vaccines safe and do more good than harm. As a general rule I would agree with that. As a parent you want your children healthy, happy and safe, but there’s a lot of fear that says you have to get this, you have to get that … I’ve talked to lots of people who have had healthy, good lives, without any immunization at all.”The dangers of diseaseDr. Greg Miranda is a pediatric hospitalist with Pediatrix Medical Group at Vail Valley Medical Center. Miranda thinks it’s vital to stress the consequences that can result when children are not vaccinated.”We sometimes tend to forget how dangerous these diseases are, and how many children are (still) getting these diseases,” Miranda said. “Vaccine preventable diseases are still infecting and killing children in the United States. My feeling is that universal vaccine administration is the safest thing to do.”Currently pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough, is at an epidemic level in the state of Colorado. As of August 18th, there have been 735 cases of pertussis reported in Colorado in 2012, compared to a 2007-2011 average of 158 cases for the same time period. Pertussis can affect both children and adults. Miranda said infants under the age of six months are the most at risk for hospitalization and death. The most common way infants contract pertussis is through their parents, who may not realize they’re infected. Both Miranda and Larson agree the best way to protect children and adults from pertussis, and other vaccine-preventable diseases, is through immunization.”Vaccines are effective,” Larson said. “Most of us in our generation, we don’t know what it was like to not have these vaccines. The majority of these diseases are rare because vaccines are so successful.”When looking at the data, Miranda does not see a sound argument against vaccinations. He said it’s important to look at the facts, rather than anecdotal evidence. “Studies have shown that not only are unvaccinated children at greater risk of contracting vaccine-preventable disease, but also that the rest of the community is at greater risk as a result,” Miranda said. Even though many in the medical community strongly feel that vaccinations are the safest way to protect children, adults, and the community as a whole, there’s also an emphasis on protecting parents who feel differently.”It’s really important that (parents) are supported,” Slott said. “Every parent is going to do what they want to do because they believe it’s in the best interest of their child. There’s no good or bad … There’s no lack of support if you choose to do things a different way.”Perhaps the skepticism surrounding vaccinations does have a beneficial purpose. Without those who question the risks of immunizations, there might not be quite the same focus on creating safe vaccines as there is today.