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Lack of Vaccination Carries Risk

Many parents worry about side effects from the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) 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.

A child in the U.S. has an extremely low risk of catching measles. But outbreaks of the highly contagious viral illness have happened among unvaccinated people. This year, more than 100 people have come down with measles, mostly related to an outbreak at Disneyland in California. 

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.” In 2014, the U.S. had 23 measles outbreaks, including one outbreak of 383 cases, the CDC says. Many of these outbreaks began with someone who traveled to the Philippines, caught the disease, and brought it to the U.S.

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.”