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The Dangers of Not Vaccinating Your Child

Any parent wants to do the best for their children, but when it comes to whether you should vaccinate your infant against childhood diseases, opinion is divided. While the majority of parents choose to protect their youngsters by taking advantage of the full range of vaccines available, a recent report by the CDC on immunization rates among toddlers shows that a significant number are choosing to avoid certain vaccines(1). This choice is linked to a resurgence of childhood illnesses, such as measles and whooping cough, but placing your child at risk of a serious health problem is not the only danger associated with poor vaccination coverage; you also place other vulnerable people in the community at risk as well.

Missing Vaccination Targets

The latest installment of the CDC’s vaccination coverage survey for children aged 19-35 months shows that while immunization rates for 2013 changed little from the previous year, some of the key findings from the report were:

  • Less than 1% of infants received no vaccinations at all.
  • The target of 90% vaccination cover was achieved for the MMR that protects against measles, mumps and rubella, as well as the hepatitis B, polio and chickenpox vaccines. However, this was not met for the combined diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine, the pneumococcal and hib vaccines that protect against pneumonia, septicemia and meningitis, or the vaccines against hepatitis A and rota virus.
  • In 17 states less than 90% of children received the MMR vaccine.
  • Nationwide 1 in 12 infants received the first MMR dose late.
  • Lower vaccination rates were found among people living below the poverty level.

Based on the findings of their report the CDC highlighted the risks of a measles comeback by delaying vaccination or choosing not to vaccinate children at all. They disclosed that till August there had already been 593 reported measles cases this year, which is the most cases since 2000 when measles was announced to have been largely eliminated from the US, and in nearly all instances the illness occurred in unvaccinated individuals or those whose vaccination history was unclear. The problem of disease resurgence is not limited to measles though, as whooping cough and mumps are also on the rise. For instance, according to the Center for Health Security, by June of this year an outbreak of whooping cough in California had already totaled 4558 cases, almost double the number recorded over the previous 12 months(2). When the cases were investigated 9% of infants with the illness hadn’t been vaccinated and the mothers of 84% had not received the DTaP vaccine during pregnancy. The same report also highlighted a similar growth in mumps cases, though these were largely restricted to two college outbreaks and the link with vaccination was less clear.

The CDC additionally reiterated the importance of improved vaccine education and access in deprived communities, but were keen to point out that pockets of non-vaccination can occur in any area, as poverty is not the only factor driving vaccine uptake.

Importance of Herd Immunity

The CDC sets targets for vaccination coverage to protect as many people as possible from these preventable illnesses through what is termed herd immunity. This is where vaccinating a large enough proportion of people helps to safeguard the whole population from infection, as it is less likely that even unvaccinated people will have contact with someone who is carrying the disease causing microbes(3). However, it doesn’t just protect those people unvaccinated by choice, but those who are naturally more vulnerable to infection due to a weaker immune system, such as young infants, pregnant women, the elderly and anyone with a condition that affects their immune system. Typically between 80 and 95% coverage is needed to offer herd immunity and although this is met for both the MMR and DTaP vaccines as a whole, as unvaccinated people are often concentrated in particular communities, it is easy for these infections to spread. Given the risk to your own children and other susceptible members of your community, why are some parents choosing not to vaccinate their offspring?

Dispelling Vaccination Myths

Although religious beliefs may explain why some parents avoid immunization, misconceptions about the vaccines are driving the decision in many more families. Among the most common myths about vaccination are:

  • The belief that childhood diseases are now rare, so immunizing against them is redundant. However, the microbes that cause the diseases we vaccinate against still exist, so to keep it that way we must keep vaccination rates high.
  • The belief there are health risks associated with vaccination. Serious side-effects scarcely occur following immunization and the risks of not vaccinating far outweigh the tiny chance of an adverse reaction. For instance, the DTaP vaccine was once linked to sudden infant death syndrome, which has been disproved, but if we do not vaccinate our children it is estimated that there would be a 71 times as many cases of whooping cough and 4 times as many deaths from the disease in the US(4). The link between the MMR vaccine and autism has also been proved invalid, while the risk of contracting measles if unvaccinated is very real(5).
  • Multiple vaccines such as MMR and DTaP strain a child’s immune system, but in reality they are exposed to many more particles that stimulate their immune system on a daily basis.

Consequences of Not Vaccinating Your Child

Although children and adults can make a full recovery from illnesses such as measles, mumps and whooping cough, this is not always the case, as all are linked to complications and whooping cough used to be the number one cause of death among children in the US. For example, in close to 10% of measles cases, a severe ear infection develops and there is a 0.1% risk of pneumonia and seizures, and in a small number of cases the disease is fatal(6). Measles also carries an extra risk to unborn babies, as if pregnant women are exposed to the infection, miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery and low birth weight are all possible outcomes. Meanwhile, mumps may rarely lead to male infertility, meningitis, deafness and other problems affecting the nervous system(7). Not all these problems are immediately obvious and may only show years later or following routine lab tests(8).

However, it isn’t just the health consequences you face from not vaccinating your children. You may not be aware, but vaccination mandates exist for children attending school in all states(9). While there is some state to state variation in this, they broadly follow the CDCs vaccination schedule, though nearly all states allow exemption on grounds of religious belief and now more are allowing this for personal beliefs as well. It is increasingly the case that day care facilities and after school clubs also expect children to be vaccinated, and your kids will additionally face travel restrictions, as they will not meet the entry requirements for certain countries overseas. What may come as the biggest surprise though is that some doctors are now refusing to treat unvaccinated children, as they regard them as a hazard to other vulnerable patients waiting for care(10).


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