Vaccines

A report published July 1 in the journal Pediatrics looked at the risks of what it called “adverse effects” from childhood vaccines. It concluded that such problems are “extremely rare” and that the benefits of immunizations outweigh the risks.

That, of course, is true – as far as it goes. But such carefully couched phrasing fails to put the issue in perspective. It is as if one were discussing food allergies as a possible reason not to address famine and starvation. The scale is not remotely comparable.

The report was done at the request of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Researchers looked at studies of 11 vaccines that were part of a comprehensive report published in 2011, as well as 67 other studies that involved controlled trials.

The findings were almost entirely negative. Flu shots had a few instances of diarrhea and vomiting. Some immunizations, particularly if given with others, had a slight increase in the number of seizures reported.

But the vaccine that prevents diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis does not cause diabetes or any other medical condition. Hepatitis B vaccine is not linked to multiple sclerosis. And the vaccine to prevent measles, mumps and rubella does not cause autism.

There were some side effects linked to some vaccines, but most were minor – some redness or swelling – with more serious repercussions described as “extremely rare.” For example, one study did find a “moderate association” between a vaccine for Hepatitis A and pupura – something the Los Angeles Times described as “a short-term condition in which leaky blood vessels cause purple spots to appear on the skin.”

That is what needs to be stressed: In that case, the trade-off is between the unlikely possibility of a few temporary purple spots and a potentially deadly disease. That is not a trade-off at all. The downside does not even warrant the term risk. As is almost always true with vaccines, the benefit is so wildly out of proportion to any possible inconvenience as to render meaningless any talk of “on the other hand. ...” There is only one hand.

Reports such as this are, by their nature, calm and careful. And, in that a negative cannot be proven, they can only report that they did not find a connection between a vaccine and a particular disease or condition.

For a more complete picture, it is important to remember what else cannot be found – iron lungs and smallpox for starters. In living memory, the U.S. experienced yearly panics over polio with parents keeping their children out of public pools and away from camps for fear of the disease. Over time, smallpox alone probably killed more people than all the wars in history.

Yet smallpox is a thing of the past, and new cases of polio are unknown in this country and most of the developed world. So, too, would be whooping cough and measles were it not for a fearful and emotional distrust of science and modern medicine.

Worrying about the rumored side effects of childhood immunizations is a luxury afforded Americans precisely because we are no longer terrified of seeing our children crippled by polio or deafened by a childhood fever. It is not enough to report that, once again, no connection can be found that links immunizations with autism or other maladies. It is also important to point out that we can be concerned about such rumored links because of the long list of truly horrible things we no longer need to fear because of vaccines and childhood immunizations.

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