January 18, 2019
If you're still on the fence about following your pediatrician's vaccination schedule, you need to check out the World Health Organization's (WHO) report on the top 10 global health threats for 2019. The organization says that "vaccine hesitancy," the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines, is threatening to make more people sick—and to reverse the progress that's been made against potentially lethal diseases such as measles.
"The key to the elimination of contagious infections is to raise protection levels high enough so that the infections are not circulating in the community," Mark H. Sawyer, M.D., a professor of clinical pediatrics at UCSD School of Medicine and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Committee on Infectious Disease, tells Parents.com. "When the public loses confidence in vaccines, the vaccination rates drop low enough that we lose this effect. That's when big outbreaks occur."
Why vaccine hesitancy is dangerous
Here are the hard numbers, according to WHO: Vaccines currently prevent about two to three million deaths a year worldwide, but a further 1.5 million lives would be saved if more vaccines were given. Plus, diseases that were nearly extinguished are making a comeback. “In 2018, the world saw an increase of several extremely dangerous vaccine-preventable diseases, including a 30 percent increase in measles,” the immunization team at Pan American Health Organization (PAHO, regional office of WHO for the Americas), told Parents.com in a joint email.
Unlike many parenting choices, vaccination is not just a "personal decision": It affects everyone, which is why WHO added vaccine hesitancy to its health threats list. "We will never be able to vaccinate every single person, but if enough people are vaccinated the few who are not are likely to avoid getting exposed because nobody around them has the infection," Dr. Sawyer says. "This even works across ages. By immunizing young children with the PCV13 vaccine that prevents Pneumococcal pneumonia, we have drastically decreased the rates of Pneumococcal pneumonia in seniors 65 years of age and older, because young children don't bring the organism to their grandparents and infect them."
Vaccines have the power to completely eradicate some diseases, so they literally wouldn’t exist anymore. But, everyone has to be on board to make this happen. “The only disease that has been globally eradicated is smallpox, and this was done thanks to a massive global vaccination effort,” the PAHO team says. “Polio is very close to being globally eradicated now, and measles could be too if we all make the commitment to do our part and get vaccinated and make sure our kids are vaccinated.”
Unfortunately, a 2018 study found non-medical vaccine exemptions for children entering kindergarten has actually increased over the past decade. "In the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), we now have 100,000 children who are fully unvaccinated and receive zero vaccines, while millions more are under-vaccinated," study author Peter J. Hotez, M.D., Ph.D., dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, tells Parents.com. "This results in schools in many parts of the US where 10, 20, even 30 percent of children are not fully immunized." In addition, "in 2018 we've also had about 150 flu deaths among unvaccinated children, while teenage girls [and boys] are not receiving their cervical cancer vaccines," he says.
What's behind vaccine hesitancy?
So why the hesitancy about vaccines? Both doctors we spoke to blame the internet. "Non-medical vaccine exemptions are rising in at least a dozen US states because of aggressive anti-vaccine activities, which claim vaccines cause autism and other things," says Dr. Hotez, also the author of "Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel’s Autism." "As a result, there is now widespread misinformation on almost 500 phony anti-vaccine websites, all amplified on social media."
Dr. Sawyer agrees. "The internet allows the wide sharing of information which is generally a good thing—but, there is no filter on the information shared so lots of totally false statements are freely circulated," he says. "So, we have medically false information flooding the internet and reaching young parents who don't realize it is false."
That's why it is important to know who or what organization is behind the information you are reading online. There are legitimate studies that disprove the false claims, so when doing your research, look for credible resources that are supported by the WHO, CDC, or the American Association of Pediatrics.
Parents of young children today have also not seen first-hand these diseases’ devastating effects. “In places where vaccine-preventable diseases haven't been spreading for a long time—thanks to vaccination, of course—people tend to not understand or remember just how dangerous these diseases can be,” the PAHO team says. “For example, measles, polio, and whooping cough can all be deadly or cause long-term consequences. If we become complacent about vaccination, we run a huge risk that children will die from diseases that are completely preventable.”
What to do if you're unsure about vaccines
If you're hesitant about vaccines, your best bet is to share your concerns with your child's pediatrician. "Parents need to access scientifically credible sources of information about vaccine safety, and the best source of reliable information should be their children's doctor," Dr. Sawyer says. "They can provide sources of credible information to address all of the concerns, most of them false, that parents read about on the Internet." The facts are that vaccines are highly tested, safe, cost-effective and protect against dangerous diseases that most of us have never even seen before—thanks to vaccines.
Parents may feel they have a right whether or not to choose vaccination, but Dr. Hotez puts it another way. "Children have a fundamental human right to be vaccinated and protected against deadly infections," he says. "Parents, therefore, have an ethical responsibility to vaccinate their child, just like they have an ethical—and legal—obligation to place their child in a car seat or safety belt."
The other nine global health threats listed in the WHO's report are: air pollution and climate change, non-communicable diseases (like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes), global influenza pandemic, fragile and vulnerable settings (due to war, famine, or other crises), antimicrobial resistance, Ebola and high-threat pathogens, weak primary health care, dengue (a mosquito-borne disease) and HIV.