Vance pediatrician clears up child immunization myths

  • Published
  • By Capt. (Dr.) Peter Pellegrino
  • 71st Medical Group
Childhood immunizations have become a very controversial topic. The media has highlighted anecdotal celebrity stories, and this shock campaign has undermined years of quality scientific research.

People wonder why children need so many vaccines. They may not have even heard of some of the diseases that their children are being immunized against. The reason for this is because of the incredible success of vaccines! Many of the newer vaccines (like the pneumococcal vaccine or PCV) prevent devastating diseases like meningitis which can cause brain damage and death.

Another common concern is that an infant's immune system can't handle getting so many vaccines at once. This is definitely not true. Vaccines are made up of a few very specific proteins, "antigens," from the illness they are defending against - a virus or bacterium; we'll just call them germs. The immune system makes antibodies against these specific antigens, so that if the body is exposed to the same germ in the future it can defend against the illness it causes.

If the body is exposed to a germ from the environment, even those viruses that cause the common cold, there are more numerous antigens that the immune system fights. Your infant is exposed to thousands of germs on a daily basis and even something as simple as a cold actually causes more of an immune response than getting a combination of vaccines. If your baby got all 11 of the childhood vaccines at the same time, it is estimated that he or she would only use 0.1 percent of his/her immune system to respond. In fact, older vaccines were not nearly as purified and had many more antigens. Currently all 11 childhood vaccines contain a total of about 130 antigens. In 1960, only four vaccines were given but they contained more than 3,200 antigens!

The last concern I'll address is that vaccines cause autism. There is no scientific evidence that this is true. This theory was initially raised in 1998 by a British gastroenterologist in a study with 12 patients, most of whom were referred to him by a lawyer who represented families that were suing the government because they felt that their children's autism was caused by the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine. The study was not only flawed by this incredible selection bias, but was not actually an experimental study at all. It was an observational study, and the author's conclusion was, "We did not prove an association between measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and the syndrome described" (Wakefield AJ, et. al. Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. Lancet 1998; 351: 637-41).

In fact, when numerous unethical practices related to the study were discovered (including the fact that the primary author was trying to patent his own measles-only vaccine), the journal's editor retracted the article as did 10 of the 13 authors.

This is where the controversy began, but numerous well-controlled studies including hundreds of thousands of children have never demonstrated any connection between vaccines and autism. In fact, in areas where vaccine rates have dropped due to this concern, the rate of autism continues to climb at the same pace it is climbing everywhere else. This is just more evidence that the increase in autism rates is unrelated to vaccines. What has occurred, however, is a greater number of measles outbreaks in areas where vaccine rates have dropped.

The other disturbing line of thought is, "well, there are more vaccines now and there is more autism now, it must be from the vaccines." When I hear this concern, I quote the antigen statistics given above: Yes, children are getting more vaccines, but they actually contain thousands fewer antigens, and certainly cause less of an immune response than a common cold!

Another common concern is for the preservatives in immunizations. Thimeresol (a mercury containing preservative) has never been proven to have any association with autism. It actually contains ethyl mercury, not methyl mercury. Methyl mercury has been proven to cause impairments in very high doses, but ethyl mercury has not - and it is cleared by the body much faster. Regardless, thimeresol was removed from all childhood immunizations in 2001 for the possible association. Other preservatives, like aluminum, have also never been linked to any adverse effects in the doses contained in immunizations.

While any medical treatment has associated risks, I can confidently say that the benefits of receiving all the recommended childhood vaccines far outweigh the risks associated with them. It is only a matter of time before unimmunized children start having severe illnesses like meningitis at alarming rates. Also, the unimmunized children are putting other individuals, particularly young infants, at risk to develop these illnesses (like measles) that they are too young to be immunized against.

Our vaccines are safer than they have ever been, and they are protecting all of us from illnesses that can be quite severe. This is why my own 2-month-old daughter, Sophia, received her shots this week.