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Refusing to Vaccinate Affects Other Kids, Too

Study: Vaccine Refusal Fueled San Diego Measles Outbreak

Many Parents Question Vaccine Safety

Part of the CDC and San Diego County investigation involved outreach to parents in the affected community who believe vaccines pose a greater risk to children than the diseases they prevent.

These parents told the researchers that they were skeptical of vaccine safety and efficacy claims by the government, the pharmaceutical industry, and the medical community. They felt there was a very low risk of getting a vaccine-preventable disease, and that such diseases were better prevented by "natural lifestyles" including prolonged breastfeeding and organic foods. Most felt vaccines could damage a child's immune system and cause neurologic complications such as autism.

"I really don't think many of them changed their minds," study investigator and CDC researcher Albert E. Barskey, MPH, tells WebMD. "They were pretty set in their ways. In fact, when given the choice of vaccinating their children after exposure so they could go back to school, most chose instead to keep them quarantined at home for three weeks."

Even so, when faced with the fact that their children had been exposed to measles, about 40% of the parents did chose vaccination over quarantine.



Vaccine Debate Rages On

Despite the extraordinary efforts of health workers, what really ended the San Diego outbreak wasn't quarantine or post-exposure vaccination. It was the high vaccination rate in the rest of the community that kept the outbreak from becoming an epidemic.

Christopher Harrison, MD, director of the infectious diseases research laboratory at Children's Mercy Hospitals & Clinic in Kansas City, Mo., says parents who don't vaccinate may think they are avoiding making a decision that could harm their child.

"They think that if they do nothing it is not their fault; that if they give their child a vaccine and something seems to go wrong, they are going to feel guilt," Harrison tells WebMD. "But not making a decision is really making a decision, and that decision is to leave your child unprotected. By not vaccinating, you have really put your child at risk."

Tamara R. Kuittenen, MD, director of medical education at New York's Lenox Hill Hospital, says she often encounters parents' "real fear" that the MMR vaccine somehow causes autism.

"I am a mother of three, age 3 and under, and I see all these mothers blogging about MMR vaccine refusal," she tells WebMD. "This is a story that needs to be told: Measles is still a threat and the vaccine is very effective. Not vaccinating your children puts them at risk of a lot of complications."

The CDC/San Diego Health Department study appears in the April issue of Pediatrics.


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