Lack of Vaccination Carries Risk
Many parents worry about side effects from the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine, Sears says. It was this vaccine that triggered the autism debate more than a decade ago. Numerous studies have shown no link between the two.
In his book, Sears suggests that if parents are comfortable, their children should start the MMR shot on the regular schedule at 12 months of age. But worried parents can delay the first MMR shot until their child enters day care or school. “You could safely delay the vaccine until your child enters school, since he is unlikely to come into contact with anyone who has one of these three illnesses,” he writes.
Statistically, a child in the U.S. has an extremely low risk of catching measles; fewer than 100 cases are reported annually in this country, according to the CDC. But outbreaks of the highly contagious viral illness have occurred among unvaccinated kids. In 2008, an unvaccinated 7-year-old boy who had visited Switzerland came home to San Diego and developed measles. An additional 11 unvaccinated children, aged 10 months to 9 years, became infected, including four who had been in the pediatrician’s office at the same time as the 7-year-old boy. In some cases, measles can lead to severe complications, including encephalitis, pneumonia, and death.
Public health experts consider such risks unacceptable, but Sears sees it differently. Most of the children who caught measles were unvaccinated because their parents chose to accept that risk, he says. “I tell these parents that it’s really not much risk to leave your baby or toddler unvaccinated against measles, as long as the majority of families are vaccinating around you. Now, I’m not telling parents that they should do this. I’m just telling them that they need to understand what the risks might or might not be, and for that particular disease, the risk is very, very low for families who delay the vaccine.”
Trying to protect one’s unvaccinated children by surrounding them with vaccinated children is a concept called “herd immunity.”
But herd immunity isn’t foolproof, experts say, because diseases can be “imported.” Fisher cites a 2007 case in which a boy, aged 12, visited from Japan to play in a Little League series. He was infected with measles, and investigators linked his illness to six later measles cases in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Texas.
Sears says that leaving children unvaccinated does increase risk. “Honestly, the best thing is to go ahead and vaccinate so that you don’t take those kinds of risks,” he says. “But I’m simply willing to understand and work with the parents who would rather take the disease risk of measles than the vaccine risk.”