Vaccines 101: What Are Vaccinations?

Are Vaccinations Safe? Do They Cause Autism?

Vaccines for Babies and Older Kids
Vaccines for Babies and Older Kids

Are vaccinations safe?

The U.S. has the safest, most effective vaccinations in the world, thanks to stringent testing requirements implemented by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Even after a vaccine is approved, the FDA still monitors it for problems. Like any medication, vaccines can cause side effects. Most are mild: soreness or swelling at the injection site, a slight rash, or a mild 24-hour fever. A small number of children experience chills, high fever, and muscle ache. Severe reactions, such as seizures and brain damage, are extremely rare.

Are infants getting too many shots too soon?

Infants' immature immune systems make them especially vulnerable to deadly diseases, so vaccinating early is critical. Exposing babies to a handful of different immunologic components (parts of a bacteria or virus that stimulate an immune response) in the form of a vaccine is nothing compared to the thousands of germs they encounter every day. "An infant's immune system is revved up from the moment he leaves the sterile womb," Dr. Feemster says. In fact, research suggests that babies can theoretically make antibodies to 100,000 vaccines at one time.

Do vaccinations cause autism?

No study has ever shown a connection between vaccines and autism. In 1998, the medical journal The Lancet published a study by British researcher Andrew Wakefield, M.D., conducted on eight children with autism. The study suggested a link between the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, intestinal problems, and, consequently, autism. The study was retracted in 2010 after studies conducted on hundreds of thousands of children failed to replicate his findings. In fact, these studies showed both vaccinated and unvaccinated children were equally at risk for autism. What's more, Dr. Wakefield lost his medical license after it was determined that he acted unethically when selecting study participants, used seriously flawed lab techniques, and fraudulently omitted key facts from his findings. In addition, studies have found no link between autism and thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative once used in vaccines. All vaccines marketed in the U.S. and recommended for children 6 years or younger contain no thimerosal or only trace amounts (1 microgram or less per dose), with the exception of inactivated influenza vaccine. Concerned parents can ask for thimerosal-free flu shots or the nasal spray, which is available to kids age 2 and older.

What diseases are making a comeback?

Any disease can make a comeback if people stop getting vaccinated. There were more than 27,000 incidents of whooping cough (pertussis) in the U.S. in 2010. Studies show that children who skip the pertussis vaccine are 23 times more likely to get sick with the disease than those who are vaccinated, and outbreaks are especially common in schools and day cares. Measles is another reemerging disease. More than 200 unvaccinated American children and adults became ill with measles in 2011 after being exposed to it by infected international travelers. Some parents who forego the varicella vaccine also expose their children to chickenpox, which causes itchy blisters (pox), fever, and fatigue. It also can lead to severe skin infection, scars, pneumonia, brain damage, and death.

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