There are thousands of decisions parents make for their children, including the choice whether or not to vaccinate for common preventable diseases. Max J. Coppes, M.D., Ph.D., MBA, Chair & Nell J. Redfield Professor of Pediatrics, University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine and Physician-in-Chief, Renown Children’s Hospital, shares why immunizations are important for the health of a child, the family and the community.
Editor’s note: This opinion piece was also published in the winter 2016 issue of the Galena Times.
By Dr. Max Coppes
As a parent of three now-adult children, I know we parents want to do what is best for our children. That includes asking questions, challenging recommendations and sometimes making decisions that go against the grain.
The decision whether or not to vaccinate (or immunize) children for some of the most common vaccine preventable diseases used to be a no-brainer for most parents; it certainly was for us. More recently, however, we find that parents are asking questions before providing consent. I welcome this development; it certainly shows how serious parents take their responsibilities.
Being a parent is a privilege. But with this privilege come some serious obligations: to care, support, nurture, and mentor fellow human beings. No wonder parenting often is more difficult than it looked like before having children.
Most parents provide consent, some give permission but still challenge the recommendations, and some decide to go against the grain. To be clear, all parents want to do what is best for their children. But do they when they refuse vaccinations?
Some believe in the notion that voluntary exposure to an infectious agent could benefit a person by stimulating his/her immune system. The idea is over a thousand years old and goes back to China and India. It wasn’t introduced in Europe and America until the mid-1700s. Initially, healthy people were exposed to agents capable of infecting them, carrying a very real risk that they would actually develop the full-blown disease rather than a milder form that might help build immunity against it.
In the 19th century, Louis Pasteur led the way in developing techniques that resulted in vaccines that lost the ability to infect. This important development revolutionized our capability to develop immunity to several serious infections that used to kill thousands and cause serious complications in even greater numbers. As a result of the advances made over the past decades, children neither have to get measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis, polio, tetanus, or diphtheria, nor suffer from the sometimes serious consequences these infections carry, including death.
Before the measles vaccine was introduced in 1963, 500 Americans died annually of this viral infection. It actually is therefore true that vaccinations save lives. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, vaccines given to infants and young children over the past two decades will prevent 322 million illnesses, 21 million hospitalizations and 732,000 deaths over the course of their lifetimes.
Some parents express concerns including real and debunked side effects. There is no question that vaccinations result in side effects in some children. Common side effects (about one in four) include pain, redness, tenderness at the injection site and flu-like symptoms. Very rarely serious side effects occur: allergic reaction (or anaphylaxis), seizures, high fever, joint pain or stiffness or pneumonia. However, it is not true that the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine, known as the MMR vaccine, causes autism as initially reported in 1998. The physician responsible for the fraudulent article that suggested such link, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, lost his medical license in the UK for having falsified data.
I encourage every parent to discuss openly any concerns you may have about vaccinating your child; that is your job. In some rare cases (allergies, defective immune systems) vaccinations may not be on your child’s best interest. But as you do think about this, you may wonder why I know of no pediatrician in Reno who has skipped a single vaccine for their own children. If it is the best for their children, would it not be the best for yours?