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The danger of refusing immunizations

By Stacy Beller Stryer, M.D.

Just last week three parents in my practice either refused or asked to alter the recommended vaccine schedule for their infants, and so far this week there have been another two. None of them have had good reasons, and none had truly researched the pros and cons of having their child receive each vaccine. The other day there was a memo on my desk, from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which discussed 5 children under age 3 years who had developed haemophilus influenza (Hib) in Minnesota last year, one of whom died. Three of the children who became ill, one of whom died, were unimmunized because of parent refusal.  Another had a recently diagnosed problem with the immune system, and the last hadn’t finished the Hib series at the time of illness.

It is difficult to hear these parents refuse the vaccine, and, although asked by parents, I cannot choose which vaccines they should get now and which they should get later because all are potentially deadly. If only parents could see what I saw as a medical student and resident, before there was the widespread use of the Hib vaccine, and before the development of the pneumococcus vaccine. If only they could see the infants and toddlers admitted with terrible infections, such as meningitis, where some developed permanent brain damage or total hearing loss, and others were not so lucky. Or the children who developed epiglottitis and could barely breathe, where even asking them to open their mouths or agitate them by examining them was risky and could cause respiratory collapse. Or those who developed arthritis in their hip or bones and received antibiotics for weeks, hoping that they would not need surgery or develop permanent damage. And, of course the many children who were admitted to the general ward or intensive care unit with pneumonia and significant respiratory distress. These are just some of the things I saw before the development of these two vaccines, most of which I just do not see anymore.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, before the widespread use of the vaccine about 15 years ago, Hib occurred in over 20,000 children per year, and about one in 200 children under age 5 years developed meningitis, with 25% of those affected developing permanent brain damage. Since the use of the vaccine, the number has dropped dramatically but is now beginning to increase again because parents are not immunizing their children adequately. The Hib vaccine prevents against infections such as meningitis, epiglottitis, septic joints, bone infections, soft tissue infections and pneumonia. There are no known serious side effects to this vaccine. The pneumococcal vaccine prevents against pneumonia, sinusitis, ear infections, meningitis, and soft tissue infections, among others.

Not only do parents harm their own children refusing a vaccine, but they also harm others. If parents don’t immunize their children, they are at greater risk of becoming ill with serious illnesses, are more likely to infect others with these infections, decrease the general “herd” immunity in the community, and may need to be excluded from school or other activities during outbreaks with vaccine-preventable illnesses. I am asking you to read about these vaccines, look at the research on their association with autism, ask your physician questions (we did spend seven years in medical school and residency learning about this), and make an informed decision. I am confident that, if you educate yourself, your decision will be the right one.

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