As we rapidly approach the first days of a new school year once again, the state legislature has designated this week, Aug. 14-21, as South Carolina Immunization Week. The goal is to highlight the importance of immunizing children to protect them from deadly diseases.
In many ways, vaccines have become a victim of their own success. Sixteen years ago, the U.S. eliminated measles, and many parents today have never known anyone with the disease. But in 2015, the number of measles incidents hit a 20-year high. One reason for this uptick is that parents have made decisions to delay or forego vaccines for their children.
However, it only takes one overseas trip to carry a vaccine-preventable disease back to an entire community. That danger is magnified since families who refuse vaccinations tend to cluster within specific communities or networks.
Parental surveys consistently rank discomfort, overwhelming the immune system and fear of preservatives as key reasons for vaccine delay or refusal. While discomfort is inescapable, many doctors offer soothing measures to help ease the pain for children, such as distracting the child with toys or bubbles, offering pacifiers, having the mother breastfeed during or after injections or having a parent hold and comfort the child while the vaccine is administered. In addition, combination vaccines developed in recent decades reduce the number of pokes necessary in a single visit.
Another source of anxiety is the increased number of vaccines in the contemporary schedule compared with 20 years ago. However, a typical infant fights up to 6,000 antigens a day, which pales in comparison to the 150 antigens within the entire recommended vaccine schedule, which protects against 14 diseases. Interestingly, 150 is less than the number of antigens encountered in the vaccine schedule that was administered to many of today’s parents, in which more than 3,000 immunologic components were contained in seven routine childhood vaccinations.
One frequent fear relates to the possible association of developmental delays and preservatives in vaccines. Because of such concerns, the mercury-based compound thimerosal has been removed from or reduced to trace amounts in all vaccines routinely recommended for children 6 years of age and younger. Despite this effort, the rate of autism has climbed. Parents troubled about mercury in vaccines may be interested to learn that mercury also is contained in breast milk, and an exclusively breastfed infant ingests twice the quantity of mercury than was previously contained in vaccines.
With the amount of information and misinformation available about vaccines, it can be a challenging topic to think through. If you have any questions or concerns about vaccines, don’t be afraid to have a candid conversation with your child’s doctor about them. If you need help finding a doctor for your child, call 1-844-Prisma Health-DOCS (447-3627) or click here.
Matt Grisham, MD, is a pediatrician with Children’s Hospital of Greenville Health System and program director of Children’s Hospital’s Pediatric Residency Program.