Stop worrying about the ‘missing piece’ of vaccine safety

By now, you’ve probably seen the information on vaccine safety online and this story on “The Daily Show.” Doctors who now debate vaccine safety have been the subject of a tremendous amount of attention in the media and here on the right, and it’s difficult to imagine a stranger cast in the role of the missing part of their mission.

But this should be the opposite.

Health care needs health care professionals. Why? Because they’re the only ones who are sensitive to the needs of the patients and know exactly what those needs are, and which prescriptions and vaccines will provide them with the treatment they need.

We are all responsible for our health, and it falls on us to ensure that medical facilities are efficient and cost-effective — and to make informed decisions about vaccination. The decision by a major department of health to put these doctors in such a highly controversial role is an unfortunate and damaging step backwards.

Parents and communities that choose to do nothing

The debate over vaccines is in need of serious context. Vaccines aren’t risk-free. They carry an enormous cost for those who don’t receive them, and those cost are often significantly greater than the benefits they provide.

Everyone says there is no downside to vaccination, and it’s true that there are less expensive ways of getting the disease – from this to coffee klatches or the convenience of a drive-through – but immunization is important.

Statistics show that vaccination is vital in preventing serious, life-threatening conditions, like cases of whooping cough, measles, mumps, pertussis, and polio. For example, there have been 485 cases of measles this year in the United States – the highest number since 2002. That means we have more than 10 times the number of cases of measles this year than in 1990 when there were just 75 cases. If we don’t vaccinate, we expose vulnerable people to this disease.

How dangerous is the measles?

The headlines this year are all about cases of measles, however, the reality is that this relatively harmless disease carries the very real risk of death for some groups of people. Health care officials suggest that certain groups of people, such as infants, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems, should not be vaccinated against measles. They do this because they’re concerned about the consequences of a severe case of measles, such as encephalitis and pneumonia.

In these high-risk groups, the vaccines have a better than 90 percent effectiveness and vaccine complications include skin rashes, loss of weight, vomiting, constipation, and fluid retention – but these symptoms do not usually require treatment and, when treated quickly, are usually survivable.

But while childhood vaccines offer a life-saving benefit, not all vaccines are created equal. Some vaccines are more dangerous than others, and vaccine safety is actually quite complicated. There are hundreds of potential diseases that vaccines protect against, and we can’t just remove and replace existing vaccines for each new development. We need to constantly evaluate and evaluate new vaccines.

No vaccine is ever 100 percent safe, but the ones we need in our society are the ones we have — and we need to make them timely, effective, and safe.

Vaccines save lives, and community decisions

Vaccination has been shown to save lives, and to have huge long-term, lasting impacts in the health of the community.

Researchers have shown that the benefits of vaccines outweigh their costs by an order of magnitude, and we know that vaccines have life-saving effects by protecting people who have not been protected by other methods. We also know that people respond differently to vaccines, and not all people benefit the same way from the same vaccines. And doctors know that the vaccines they give are linked to the conditions they protect.

Ultimately, vaccine safety is important because they prevent vaccine-preventable diseases. Vaccines are also the best way we have to keep people healthy.

So, as parents, we must make our own decisions about what vaccines we want for our children – and what we believe is best for them, not in spite of what other people have to say. And we must convince others that we know what’s best for our children, and that they should take their business to the doctors who know the best for them.

This is how we will protect our families.

Follow Paul Ferraro, MD, MPH, the director of the Children’s Health Evaluation and Research Unit at the Children’s Health and Vaccine Development Institute.

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