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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?

Measles Is Not Child's Play continued...

Before measles vaccines were developed, most children contracted the disease by the time they were 15, the CDC notes, resulting in:

  • About 450 annual deaths
  • 48,000 hospitalizations each year
  • 7,000 cases of seizures, and
  • 1,000 cases of permanent brain damage or deafness each year.

Yet some parents who object to childhood immunizations will host or bring their children to so-called "measles parties," where the kids can get exposed to an infected child, get the disease, and develop immunity naturally. One such mother told the New York Times "I refuse to sacrifice my children for the greater good."

"It would be a terrible mistake for a parent to deliberately expose their child to measles, or chickenpox, for that matter," Halsey tells WebMD. "To deliberately give a child measles in this day and age is not only inappropriate, but it actually might be considered to be criminal, because it's preventable."

But that mother is no different from any other parent who wants what she thinks is best for her children, says Barbara Loe Fisher, president of the National Vaccine Information Center, a consumer-oriented vaccine safety watchdog group she co-founded. Fisher and NVIC co-founder Kathi William blame serious reactions to the diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus (DPT) vaccination for their children's learning disabilities and attention deficit disorder.

"I disagree that individual health and public health are two different things," Fisher says in an interview with WebMD. "Individuals make up the community, and if you have a number of individuals who are suffering adverse effects to a medical intervention, a public health intervention, by extension that eventually becomes a matter of public health."

Herd Immunity

Penelope H. Denehy, MD, professor of pediatrics at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University in Providence, R.I., notes that in addition to protecting individual children against infectious diseases, universal vaccinations cover those children who for medical reasons cannot be vaccinated, a concept known as "herd immunity."

"One of the things we know quite clearly is that if there are enough parents in an area who [refuse to vaccinate], there actually then becomes a large-enough group of non-immune kids to actually sustain outbreaks," she tells WebMD. "There's an area in Colorado where the rates of pertussis [whooping cough] were quite high because there was enough of a population who were not immunized to sustain the passage of pertussis around the community."

In addition, even if an unvaccinated child is protected by herd immunity at home, if that child travels with her family, she runs a high risk of infection from a person from a part of the world with low vaccination rates, as happened in the case of the Indiana measles outbreak.

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