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The decision to vaccinate our children must be based on fact, not fiction

Like any parent with school-aged children, I'm regularly given the opportunity to vaccinate mine against childhood illnesses. But ever since the MMR scandal and the now discredited research of Andrew Wakefield in 1998 drawing a link between MMR and autism, parents of my generation have begun to doubt vaccinations rather than welcoming them.

More recently, Meningitis C has come under the spotlight, with some parents fighting to widen the age bracket and get more children immunised, while others strongly oppose the vaccine altogether.

I should state up front that I am wholeheartedly in favour of childhood immunisation. My concern is that the longer the debate around safety of immunisation continues, the higher the risk to children's health.

Obviously, no medical intervention is entirely risk free. Vaccines, though designed to protect, can cause side effects that, in the extreme, include life-threatening allergic reaction, seizure, and even death. But looking at solid fact-based evidence, it’s very hard to find an anti-immunisation argument that sticks. Quite simply, there is no evidence to suggest the risks outweigh the benefits.

No parent wants to put their child at risk. Any suggestion there might be risk involved, however small, makes parents naturally want to investigate the odds. But I would say that such vital decisions have to be based on facts. Only then can parents balance the risks against the benefits and make the correct judgement.

Frequent anti-immunisation arguments include:

Historically, vaccines have been shown to harm children

  • Old polio vaccine: paralysis experienced by a very small amount of patients. Cases were so few that many deemed the risk justifiable. There have been no cases of harm reported for the new polio vaccine.

    Measles vaccine: in an area of around 300,000 people, one child every 250 years will develop serious illness from a measles vaccination that's about a million to one chance.

    Needless to say, your chances of catching measles and developing complications are much higher. Before immunisation in the UK in 1968, an average 100 people died each year from measles.

It’s dangerous for babies to have so many vaccinations at one time

  • There is no credible scientific evidence to suggest that a baby’s immune system is overwhelmed in this way. The number of immune challenges that children fight every day (2000–6000) in the environment is far greater than the number of antigens or reactive particles in all their vaccinations combined.

Vaccines contain dangerous ingredients     

  • Traces of preservatives, such as the mercury-containing thimerosal and formaldehyde can be found in some vaccines. This is however, down to toxicity and dose. Small amounts of these substances are not harmful. Formaldehyde, for example, can be found in many foods and a baby can break down 0.1 mg in less than 2 minutes. The only vaccine that now contains thimerosal is the flu vaccine and only in trace amounts. It is no longer found in any baby vaccines.

Dangerous diseases have been virtually eradicated and my personal decision to not vaccinate cannot harm others

  • This simply is not true. Even in widely vaccinated areas, there are a number of people that could be put at risk by your child, including babies that have not yet been vaccinated, the elderly and the small number of people for whom vaccination is not effective. Where children aren’t vaccinated, more will get sick, and it only takes a few cases for an outbreak to occur. There are several examples of outbreaks occurring in this way throughout the UK and US.

    Vaccination protects those around us (herd immunity) and by not vaccinating we are putting others at risk.

Side effects are a much bigger risk than the small chances of catching the disease

  • Most side effects are mild and temporary. By contrast, catching a disease like measles, meningitis or diphtheria is associated with severe risks. The chances of contracting measles (1 in 500) is much higher than having a non-fatal severe allergic reaction to MMR (1 in 1000,000).

Vaccines aren’t effective. Better sanitation ended diseases before vaccinations were introduced

  • This is where the interpretation of data is key. Often, those arguing against immunisation will point to certain graphs that show mortality rates from certain diseases to be low or almost non-existent before the introduction of the relevant vaccine. What they don’t show is the cases of morbidity (actually contracting the disease) and the often catastrophic injuries that follow.

    While improved socioeconomic conditions such as sanitation did have a big impact on lowering the death rate, they didn't eradicate disease. In cases such as polio, many survived longer thanks to better medical care but lived out their lives in iron lungs. The morbidity graphs clearly show that it was vaccines that eliminated the spread of the diseases.

Vaccines can cause autism because the cases of autism increased when the MMR shot was introduced

  • The data used for this argument is often misrepresented and does not account for factors such as a rise in the state's population, changes in medical definitions and earlier diagnosis. A more thorough study carried out in Japan (where MMR was stopped and then later reintroduced) provides a much clearer picture and shows that autism isn't linked to vaccination.  Another major study involving 95,000 children published in April 2015 in the Journal of the American Medical Association similarly concluded that there is no link between the MMR vaccination and autism. Correlation is not causation.

Using measles as an example, the numbers speak for themselves. World Health Organisation figures show that between 2000 and 2014, the measles vaccination prevented an estimated 17.1 million deaths, making the vaccine one of the best buys in public health.

Yes, parents have options and yes, we have decisions to make.  But it is crucially important that we are given appropriate, accurate and unbiased information to allow us to make those decisions.

The reality is that the evidence overwhelmingly supports the case for vaccination.  As with any medical intervention there are risks, but these must be weighed against the obvious and extensive benefits that vaccines offer.

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