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Child Vaccines: Some Parents Ill at Ease

Does the private right of parents to not vaccinate their kids trump the greater public good?
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes probably wasn't thinking about child vaccines or parental rights when he said "the right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins."

But the intersection of private rights and the public good addressed by Holmes is a subject much on the minds of parents, doctors, and public health experts these days, as a vocal and apparently growing minority of parents and alternative health care practitioners question the need for, or safety of, childhood immunizations.

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"We are seeing in some states an increasing proportion of families who are choosing to delay or not immunize their children, and unfortunately, when this happens, we do see sporadic outbreaks of diseases like measles," says Neal Halsey, MD, a director of the Institute for Vaccine Safety at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

In February, 12 San Diego area children came down with measles. Eight of the children were eligible to be vaccinated against measles but hadn't been, and three were infants too young to be immunized.

In Indiana in 2005, a measles outbreak infected 34 people ranging from 9 months to 49 years of age. Three of the 34 needed to be hospitalized, including one 34-year-old adult who had to be put on a ventilator for six days, and a 6-year-old child and 45-year-old adult who suffered from severe dehydration. Only two of the 34 were known to have been vaccinated against measles: one with one dose, which affords about 95% protection, and the other with the two recommended doses.

The Indiana outbreak was eventually traced to a 17-year-old girl who had not been vaccinated against measles, and had recently returned from volunteer work at an orphanage and hospital in Bucharest, Romania, where a wide-scale measles outbreak was later reported. She had apparently transmitted the infection to a 6-year-old girl while both were attending a church function in northwestern Indiana. The six-year-old was later hospitalized after she became ill while visiting relatives in Cincinnati, according to the CDC. 

Measles Is Not Child's Play

Some parents and critics of mandatory immunization dismiss measles as a "harmless" disease of childhood, like the common cold or earaches.

But according to the CDC:

  • Up to 1 in 20 children with measles will get pneumonia
  • About 1 in 1,000 children with measles will get encephalitis -- an acute inflammation of the brain that can cause permanent nerve and/or brain damage
  • 1 or 2 in 1,000 children who get measles will die from the disease.

"While measles is almost gone from the United States, it still kills about half a million people a year around the world," a CDC fact sheet for parents points out. "Measles can also make a pregnant woman have a miscarriage or give birth prematurely."

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