Before the middle of last century, diseases like whooping cough, polio, measles, and rubella struck hundreds of thousands of babies, children, and adults in America, killing thousands of people every year. As vaccines were developed and became widely used, instances of these diseases rapidly declined or even disappeared.
“Childhood death from communicable diseases in the United States was at an all-time low. However, because we have had this myth that vaccines are dangerous, vaccine rates have gone down. So we’re seeing a reemergence of diseases that should have been eradicated,” says Dyan Hes, MD, a pediatrician who is double-board certified in pediatrics and obesity medicine.
Even with scientific proof that vaccines save lives, many people still have questions and concerns about their effectiveness or safety. It’s natural to be concerned about the medical care your children receive (especially for very young babies). So we spoke with leading pediatricians to clear up the misconceptions they hear most often about childhood vaccines. Here’s what every parent needs to know the safety and effectiveness of vaccinating their children.
Myth: Getting many vaccines at once overwhelms a child’s immune system.
Kids’ immune systems are stronger than you might think—they successfully fight off thousands of germs each day. Even if your child gets several vaccines in one doctor’s visit day, it’s still only a small percentage of the amount of germs their bodies can capably fight off.
What’s more, newer research shows that receiving multiple shots actually helps your child’s immune system respond better. “We give children several immunizations at once in order to stimulate their immune system,” says Dr. Hes. “We’ve actually found in studies that children respond better to multiple immunizations at once than getting one at a time.”
Myth: Vaccines can cause the disease they protect against.
Vaccines do not give your child disease. That’s because of how they’re assembled and how they work in the body. “[Vaccines are] weakened or disassembled versions of the actual disease,” says Alok Patel, MD, a pediatrician at New York Presbyterian-Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital. Your child is injected with small parts of the disease so their immune system can learn to spot and fight it, but not the actual disease.
“It’d be like if I were to give you the pieces of a car, and put it in your garage in the morning. It’s not going to magically assemble into the car,” says Dr. Patel.
Myth: Don’t get a vaccine if you have a cold.
Children can usually get vaccines when they have a mild illness—like a cold, low fever, ear infection, or diarrhea—but it’s wise to check with your pediatrician first. “If your child has a moderate to severe illness, [if] they’re really not doing well, then that’s a time to hold off on the vaccine. That’s something your pediatrician will determine,” says Preeti Parikh, MD, a pediatrician at Mount Sinai Hospital and HealthiNation’s chief medical editor.
Myth: Vaccines aren’t necessary; we got rid of so many diseases.
Diseases that are rare or nonexistent in the United States still exist in other parts of the world. “We still see cases of measles [and] mumps,” says Dr. Patel. “Polio has been eradicated, but only in this country. Doctors still vaccinate against them because it’s easy to come in contact with illness when traveling abroad, or when people who aren’t properly immunized come to America.
The only disease that has been successfully eradicated by a vaccine worldwide is smallpox. “And guess what, your child will not get a smallpox vaccine,” says Dr. Patel. “There is still a risk of a child getting all these preventable illnesses, and so we recommend that your child completes the full series on time.” Here’s a look at the vaccine schedule recommended for babies.
Myth: If other kids are vaccinated, mine don’t need to be.
If just one kid gets an infectious disease, he can spread it to others, including yours, who are not yet immune. The more kids who are vaccinated, the fewer opportunities a disease has to spread.
“Most children in the US do not get the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine until one [year old]. [If] another child is 5 and catches measles, mumps or rubella, those infants under age one are all susceptible,” says Dr. Hes.
And there are certain children and groups of people who cannot be vaccinated. “Children with altered immune systems, children with cancer, adults with cancer, we also have children who can’t get certain immunizations until a certain age,” says Dr. Hes.
Myth: It’s better to get the actual illness than a vaccine.
You had chickenpox and didn’t suffer too badly, right? So is it such a bad thing for your child to get it too? The answer is a resounding yes. “It’s never preferable for the child to get the actual disease,” says Dr. Patel. The course of a natural disease has the potential for an unintended consequence that can be life threatening. “Why give your child the risk of a life-threatening illness, or a long-term debilitation, with a natural disease? The vaccine will give them the immunity they need, without the life-threatening side effects of getting the real disease,” says Dr. Patel.