To vax or not to vax?

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Whether you should or shouldn’t vaccinate your children Vaccination remains a contentious and controversial debate among parents. Pro-vaxxers (those in favour of vaccination) will tell you that vaccines are safe, necessary and essential in protecting your children from potentially fatal diseases.

Anti-vaxxers (those against the practice), on the other hand, argue that vaccines – in much the same vein as the Big Pharma industry which created them – are not to be trusted; they contain dangerous toxins that may harm your children.

There is a lot of information and opinions on the topic, from Internet articles to social media posts, so, how do you make the right choice?

What are childhood vaccines?

Childhood vaccines exist to protect children from a variety of serious or potentially fatal diseases, including diphtheria, measles, polio and whooping cough (pertussis). If these diseases seem uncommon, or even unheard of, it could be deduced that over time these vaccines have been doing their job.

Are there any risks?

Vaccines do have risks, and similar to most medications on the market, some people (in this case, children) may suffer from side effects, including redness and swelling at the injection site, fever, and a rash. But the most serious risks, such as severe allergic reactions, are far rarer than the diseases vaccines protect against.

Evidence also shows that the occurrence of measles, for example, is nowhere near to what it was in the early 1900s. However, it is important for parents to be cognisant of the side effects when making this decision and ensure that their children are under clinical supervision, especially if they have allergies or any other ailment.

Misinformation about vaccines

Misinformation about vaccines further blurs the debate. For example, the fear that the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine might cause autism has lingered in some parents’ minds for more than a decade, despite more than a dozen studies debunking the myth and showing no link between the two.

Similarly, parents have raised concerns about the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine being dangerous. HPV is extremely common and is responsible for an estimated 5% of all cancers in both men and women. Nearly everyone will be infected with the virus at some point in their lifetime, yet despite this information, parents do not believe the vaccine is safe.

Like any vaccine or medicine, HPV vaccines can cause side effects, including pain, redness, or swelling, dizziness, fainting, nausea, and headache. However, newer HPV vaccines will deliver similar evidence as traditional child immunisations, and it’s just a matter of time until people trust that the HPV vaccine prevents cancer.

There’s nothing funny about the flu

Often confused with the common cold, influenza is a potentially serious disease that can lead to hospitalisation and sometimes even death. Despite this, and despite its effectiveness, the benefits of the annual seasonal flu vaccine are still being debated.

As flu viruses are constantly changing (called “antigenic drift”), medical experts must decide in advance which viruses to include in the annual flu vaccine, based on the most prevalent flu strains during the previous flu season in other developed countries (other parts of the world).

The flu vaccine still remains the best way to protect against the flu, hospitalisation due to the flu and even the risk of flu-related death in children and immune-compromised adults. Furthermore, advances in vaccine production technologies and advanced molecular techniques are constantly being explored and developed to improve flu vaccine effectiveness.

Measles outbreaks on the rise

In recent years, measles outbreaks have devastated countries across the globe, including the latest in the United States with 50 reported cases in Washington State alone, as of February 2019. In fact, reported measles cases have soared by 30% since 2016. This according to the World Health Organisation which cites the massive drop in vaccination rates, or ‘vaccine hesitancy,’ as one of the top 10 threats to public health everywhere.

Is there such a thing as herd immunity?
Yes. Herd immunity implies a large majority of a population has become immune to a disease, and it limits the spread of the disease, protecting those in the community who may be more susceptible due to age or being immune-compromised. As an example, measles, as the most contagious of vaccine-preventable diseases, is always the first to spread and indicate a drop in herd immunity.

For measles to spread from a few cases to an outbreak, all you need is one infected person in a low vaccine community (with low herd immunity). You don’t even need to have face-to-face contact with that person – you just have to be in their air space within two hours of their being there to contract the disease, according to the Centre for Disease Control in the United States.

Not a decision to be taken lightly
The three questions that typically come up with parents who are hesitant about having their children vaccinated are: Is the vaccine safe? Is the vaccine needed? Why shouldn’t I have freedom of choice regarding my child’s vaccinations? These are valid questions and making this decision will greatly impact the health of your children for the rest of their lives. For example: while not official legislation, it is common practice for South African schools to not admit children without updated vaccination records or other proof that the learner has been immunised against polio, measles, tuberculosis, diphtheria, tetanus and hepatitis B.

Vaccination is not a decision to be taken lightly, which is why it is critical to do your research and speak with a medical professional about your concerns.