Answers to questions about common vaccine concerns

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BYU nursing professor Beth Luthy looks at an old photo of her son Michael who caught several vaccine-preventable diseases as an infant. Michael was born with a liver condition called biliary artesia and received a liver transplant when he was one year old. (Emma Willes)

See also “Anti-vaccination movement threatens global health

The CDC announced April 8 that 465 cases of measles were confirmed between Jan. 1 and April 4, the second greatest number of reported cases in the U.S. since measles was eliminated in 2000. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a public health emergency April 9 because its active measles outbreak in the Williamsburg neighborhood.

An increasing number of parents are hesitating to immunize their children because of concerns about vaccine safety. BYU nursing professors Lacey Eden and Beth Luthy addressed some common concerns parents feel when it comes to making the decision to vaccinate.

“When you talk about the anti-vaccine movement, many will say, ‘I don’t want to put my child in danger,’ because they really believe that vaccines are not safe,” Eden said. “I don’t know how to better help them understand the significant amount of research that has shown over and over and over again that vaccines are safe.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, data shows the current U.S. vaccine supply is the safest in history.

Eden said she feels frustrated when people argue vaccine-preventable diseases aren’t that big of a deal and are rarely deadly. First, Eden explained that even those who do not die because of a disease like measles may still suffer long-term effects.

According to the CDC, one out of every 1,000 children who get measles will die from it. However, ear infections that can result in permanent hearing loss occur in about one out of every 10 children who catch the disease. Up to one out of every 20 children with measles gets pneumonia, and about one child of every 1,000 children develops brain swelling that can leave the child deaf or with an intellectual disability.

Eden also said vaccine-preventable diseases that may be benign for most people are not benign for infants and those who are immunocompromised, making them most susceptible to catching vaccine-preventable diseases.

“While many believe that it’s benign because they’ve seen so many survivors of measles, unfortunately, it’s not benign for those who are most vulnerable,” Eden said. 

Eden also addressed the idea that disease outbreaks are not serious because they affect a comparatively small percentage of the population, citing the recent outbreak in Washington. The state’s health department confirmed 74 cases of measles as of March 29.

“They’re saying, ‘That’s hardly anybody that’s been sick,’ but what they don’t recognize, and what they don’t understand is all of the public health efforts that have gone into containing that disease,” Eden said. 

On the other side of the debate, Kristen Chevrier, who directs the advocacy group “Your Health Freedom,” said she believes there isn’t enough information given to parents when the time comes to vaccinate their children.

“I think that the parents need to have complete information so that they can make an informed decision — whatever decision they feel is going to be best for their family and for each individual child,” Chevrier said.

Chevrier said parents should research vaccine risks, know vaccine ingredients and read the vaccine package inserts, which are available on the Food and Drug Administration’s website. She also emphasized the importance of reporting adverse vaccine reactions to the Vaccine Adverse Reporting System.

“Parents need to be aware that vaccine injury can happen,” Chevrier said.

Luthy acknowledged a life-threatening injury is possible with all vaccines, though the probability is extremely low. The vast majority of these injuries come from anaphylaxis, Luthy said, but the chance of a vaccine causing that type of severe allergic reaction is literally one in a million, a statistic confirmed by the CDC.

“And sometimes a parent will say, ‘But what if my child is the one? What if we’re the one?’” Luthy said.

However, according to Luthy, these reactions can be treated. The CDC adds that the best way to prevent such reactions in the first place is by identifying an individual’s past allergic reactions to vaccinations “that might indicate an underlying hypersensitivity.”

Some choose not to vaccinate because of concerns about vaccine ingredients. Luthy emphasized the importance of understanding credible medical research regarding vaccine ingredients. She gave the example of aluminum, an ingredient present in many vaccines.

“There is aluminum that is naturally all around us. There is aluminum in breast milk. So what you need to do is go, ‘OK, there’s aluminum and it’s in this vaccine. What does that mean?’” Luthy said. “We get, ‘Aluminum is bad, aluminum is in vaccines.’ That sounds really scary until you know the rest of this story, so it’s important to get the rest of the story that’s out there.”

Chevrier also expressed concerns that vaccine manufacturers have limited liability when it comes to vaccine-related injuries, a result of the 1986 National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act.

“I don’t know that any other product in the United States has those advantages — a captive market with no liability for any injury caused by their products,” she said. 

However, according to the CDC, the act was passed after several lawsuits were filed against vaccine manufacturers and damages were awarded “despite the lack of scientific evidence to support vaccine injury claims.”

“As a result of these decisions, liability and prices soared, and several vaccine manufacturers halted production,” the CDC’s website states. “A vaccine shortage resulted and public health officials became concerned about the return of epidemic disease. To reduce liability and respond to public health concerns, Congress passed the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act.”

The act also established the National Vaccine Program Office, and requires health care providers to provide vaccine information statements and report adverse vaccine reactions. It created the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program and established a committee to review the literature on vaccine reactions.

“Significant progress has been made over the past few years to monitor side effects and conduct research relevant to vaccine safety,” the website says.

Eden cited several sources available for parents seeking credible information about the safety and efficacy of vaccines and their ingredients, including the CDC, Immunization Action Coalition and Vaccinate Your Family.

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