There are definitely socially acceptable things that promote safety : car seats, bike helmets, child-leashes (don't judge, people, until you have to chase several inadvertedly suicidal toddlers, all going in different directions, at the zoo), washing your hands after petting goats at the zoo, not going down the slide head-first at the zoo...you get it. The zoo is a dangerous place. The one safety thing that seems to be controversial for reasons that escape me is that of childhood vaccination (and for some people, the leashes).
I find it extraordinarily confusing that parents may not want to vaccinate their children. I often wonder, if all those people who died of those awful diseases back in the day knew that there was a way to prevent their premature earthly departure, and knew that there are those who a rejecting this prevention, what would they think? An image of zombies rolling over in their graves is now in my mind. Vaccination is the single biggest public health advance of the 20th century and has saved more lives then any other public health initiative (besides birth control? hmmm...I am a mean pediatrician). And yet, propaganda has brainwashed some people into believing it is like going to the zoo (um, euphemism for "dangerous" if you didn't get it).
Some people are suspicious we get kickbacks from the pharmaceutical companies and that that is the reason we push them. Could someone please make that one true so I could pay off my medical school loans fifteen years sooner? (Seven years down, twenty-three to go!)
Do people ever wonder why doctors support vaccination? Remember, we all start out as non-doctors. There are even those among us who are dubious upon entering medical school. And yet, we almost uniformly come out supportive once we learn the safety profiles and importance of immunizing.
After, or sometimes during, medical school, many of us become parents (I know - we think it is a miracle, too; just goes to show you that "almost abstinence" is not an effective form of birth control). Because we practice the day-care type of parenting on account of how we have to go to work to pay off all those school loans, we all run to get the flu vaccine for our children every season at the earliest time possible. After all, kids pick their noses and most kids eat their boogers. If you think your child will wash their hands after a good nose picking, think again. They wipe those slimy, green, mucousy hands on whatever or whoever is closest. No death by flu meningitis/respiratory failure/sepsis for me or mine, thank you.
For many of the other vaccine-preventable diseases, people think if they pseudo-quarantine their children at home, they will be safe. The problems with this argument is that germs are everywhere and they are invisible. (See above paragraph about boogers; not even gonna start about washing your hands after going to the bathroom, but you can imagine that the same rule applies as with boogers when it comes to kids). If you go to the grocery store, gas station, library, or doctors' office, germs will find you. If your spouse goes to work, germs will find you. If you get mail or buy things other humans have touched, germs will find you.
With some of these germs, like streptococcal pneumonia or haemaphilus influenza, children can get sick at the same speed a twelve month old will pick up and eat a nickel that you both just noticed. By the time you seek medical attention, your child qualifies for the ICU (intensive care unit). There are long-term sequelae, like brain damage or becoming Republican, that are almost as bad as death, some argue worse. Meningitis can leave children ventilator dependent, unable to lead normal lives. Vaccines prevent bad consequences. (Note: vaccines can not prevent your child from becoming a Republican - this is a major flaw, I realize). If your child is not vaccinated, their risk of acquiring a life-threatening illness is many-fold higher then becoming autistic (I mention this on account of how a lot of people must think autism is worse then death...and also that you can become autistic from a vaccine...keep reading.)
Ever wonder why back when we were young (not "thirty is the new forty" young; I mean infants and toddlers), fever set parents and doctors in panic mode? Because we didn't have the vaccines we have now. For those of you with children, you may notice that the older your child gets, and the more vaccines your child gets, if they are otherwise healthy your doctor is less and less worried when they have fevers, even high ones to 106.5. This is because once the child is considered fully immunized, usually after the 12 month visit, the risk that a fever is caused by a bacterial infection that will lead to severe consequences and/or death is tiny. (I love run-on sentences). Fevers are actually protective and help your body fight infection. (This is different from heat stroke where even a mild elevation in body temperature can cause brain damage or death). Twenty or thirty years ago, we needed to make sure these children did not have meningitis or bacteria in the blood. Nowadays, the infections are almost always viral and spontaneously resolve. BECAUSE OF VACCINES! Fevers don't hurt people, bacteria do. (OMG - this is so similar to "Guns don't kill people. People kill people." I would like to add to that "People with guns kill people - so many tangents...).
With international travel, diseases that we think are extinguished in the US, travel to US via human hosts. Polio, is one example. Ever heard of India? Have any friends who travel there? Or grandparents that travel from there and hug your friends? Interestingly enough, parents of patients that come from Third World countries, and have witnessed what these diseases have done to neighbors, friends or loved ones can not wait for their child to get all their shots. They are always asking if there are any other vaccines they can have ahead of schedule. "Your baby does not need to be immunized for human papilloma virus just yet, Mrs. So-and-So." Just goes to show how fortunate we are.
This leads me to the issue of children who can not build their own immunity - those with cancers or those who are born without an immune system or a poorly functioning one due to a variety of different diseases. The parents of these children live with a constant fear of infection. They hope that herd immunity will help, as is their hope for isolation. It is baffling to me that those of us who can contribute to herd immunity, wouldn't. Selfish, selfish. And again, herd immunity is not perfect, but better then nothing.
I understand parents have fear. They advocate for what they think is best for their most precious babies. Do they think pediatricians and family practice doctors, who are parents, too, would not want to advocate for these most vulnerable members of society? What is more frightening is that the information they have is wrong. There is no gray area. It is simply wrong.
We have a lot of vaccines today - THANK GOD ALMIGHTY! But, we are not grateful. In fact, this seems to scare people. Did you know that twenty years ago, when we had only a few vaccines, we were exposing ourselves to more antigens in each shot? That is because our purification processes are so much better now, that the numerous vaccines given en totale are safer then the few we used to give. Did you know that your baby is exposed to thousands of antigens daily? Thousands of triggers to the immune system. Every. Day. I mean, each booger is like a germ city. So, the couple extra in the vaccine are a drop in the bucket. This is true. I am not minimizing.
The whole scare about autism has not only been disproven by many studies, but the scientist who produced the false data and has been imprisoned for years. The repercussions of his lies have effected thousands contributing to outbreaks of mumps, measles, pertussis. Of note, the MMR vaccine, which had been the one to blame for autism, is routinely given at the 12 or 15 month visits. The earliest most doctor's offices screen for autism is 16-18 months. So, it is understandable where the confusion would come it. If you use that reasoning, however, we could blame introducing cow's milk into the diet as a cause of autism, or checking for anemia, both of which are frequently done at 12 months.
Do vaccines have side effects? Do you really need to ask? Can eating eggs have side effects? Taking acetaminophen? Going on a bike ride? A night of clubbing? (Ok, last one was a bit much). Yes, of course, everything in life has a measure of risk. The correct question to ask is : are the side effects of the vaccines worth the benefit of the vaccine? I think you know what my answer will be.
In the modern world, we are exposed to germs all the time from everywhere. We can not be in a bubble. We can not put our children in a bubble, as much as we may think we can (or they will float away into outer space, remember?). If you have questions about vaccine safety, talk to your doctor. Please, don't be naive about how well you can keep your child from getting sick. Protect your children. Vaccinate.
CDC - Centers for Disease Control
AAP - Healthy Children.org a website run by the American Academy of Pediatrics for parents.