By Stacy Beller Stryer, M.D.
After my blog last week discussing the recent increase in Haemophilus influenzae B (Hib) cases in Minnesota, I received a comment from “Indian Cowboy,” who is a blogger and fourth year medical student. While Indian Cowboy admits that he isn’t completely against vaccines, he does question their safety and says that, “if my (future) patients were to ask me specifically, scientifically, what the risks of vaccines are, I would be forced to shrug my shoulders and say I actually have no idea.” He suggests that pediatricians, in general, are not open and honest with their patients about any side-effects associated with vaccines. Furthermore, Indian Cowboy comments that he is a member of the “current generation of medical students,” where evidence-based medicine is important. Does this mean that we old-timers (yes, I am an ancient 45 years old), don’t practice medicine based on results of quality studies and proof of what actually works?
That is far from the truth. My colleagues and I practice medicine based on what has been proven to work and not just what we learned on a whim. We continue to read reputable journal articles and other medical literature, often discussing treatment changes based on new research. And I do not know any pediatrician who makes a blanket statement that vaccines are 100% safe. Personally, I spend a fair bit of time talking to parents who question vaccine safety. I tell them that anybody can have a reaction to a vaccine, just like anybody can react to an antibiotic, food, or something in the environment. I also discuss more common side effects of vaccines, such as fever, redness, and irritation at the injection site. In addition, I mention that there are very rare, more serious side effects associated with some vaccines, such as seizures and encephalitis. I am certainly not the only honest pediatrician in the United States. In fact, reputable organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which are major advocates for vaccines, clearly state on their website that no vaccine is 100% safe or effective.
Just as importantly, and an absolute necessity is discussing that the risk of becoming seriously ill or dying secondary to a vaccine is much lower than the risk of developing a serious illness or dying if a child becomes ill with one of the infections for which they could have been vaccinated. Parents must be aware of the benefits of receiving these vaccines. And they should know that vaccines are one of the greatest medical discoveries of the 20th century and have increased life expectancy and quality of life significantly.
Back to Indian Cowboy – he also comments that we really don’t know much about vaccine safety because studies only last days or, at most, a couple of weeks. This is also far from the truth. Before a vaccine is licensed, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) requires testing. Once the vaccine is being used, the CDC and FDA look for any problems and investigate them through the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System. It’s true that this system depends on pediatricians and parents to report side effects. This was recognized as a problem, so in 1986 a National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act was developed which, among other things, required experts to intensively review any possible adverse effects of vaccines. In 1990 the Vaccine Safety Datalink project was developed, where researchers gained access to the medical records of over 5.5 million people to evaluate for common and rare side effects associated with vaccines. All of these different safety methods have led to changes in vaccines to make them safer. In 2000, children began to receive the inactive polio instead of the live polio vaccine due to the rare risk of developing polio from the oral vaccine. More recently, the pertussis vaccine was changed from a whole cell to an acellular one because of the increased risk of rare neurological side effects.
I could continue, but the bottom line is that immunizations have been tested extensively for safety and continue to be monitored by reputable, quality organizations. There is an abundance of information available on safety for every vaccine. It is true that we cannot assure parents that their child will not develop a severe allergic reaction or a rare side effect to a vaccine. And we cannot say that we are 100% sure that vaccines do not affect the brain or the immune system, such as we cannot assure them that they will not get into an accident when they step into a car or that they will not be hit by a car when they cross a street. But we can reassure them that the chances of such an event are rare and that the benefit of receiving the vaccine far outweighs the risk of not receiving it.
I certainly hope that the one case of epiglottitis and pertussis that Indian Cowboy saw last year makes him realize not only how serious these infections can be in infants and children, but also that he only saw one case of each whereas, without immunizations, he would have seen many more and, most likely, a few deaths.