We live in a time of information overload. It’s impossible to open your computer or reach for your phone and not be surrounded by mountains of information. And with so much at our fingertips, it can be hard to know what is true and what is false. I understand the confusion that so many conflicting accounts can cause because I see it every day. But as a mother of two children I cherish, and as a pediatrician and champion of wellness, there is one thing that does not confuse me — the fact that vaccines are safe and save lives.
When my first child was born, I cradled her in my arms and vowed to keep her safe. Since that time, I have worked hard to sustain her mind, body, and spirit with healthy habits. I’m fortunate to be a pediatrician who reads avidly, and is able to make sense of the information that sows doubt and confusion in many parents. I have watched in sadness as the wave of vaccine misinformation has polluted oceans of evidence that show vaccines are safe and effective. I know that families are concerned because they want to do what is best for their children. They love their children and want to protect them in the same way that I want to protect mine. Their fear of vaccines comes from love, and misinformation causes even more doubt.
Let’s start at the beginning: Why were vaccines created in the first place? To protect us from the most contagious and dangerous illnesses on Earth. I am in the fifteenth year of my career, and I have been around long enough to have seen terrifying side effects from vaccine-preventable illnesses. My family lost a very close friend to meningitis during his freshman year in college — before a meningitis vaccine was available. He was an only child, brilliant, and gifted, and his parents would have done anything to protect him. Vaccines, like the one now available for meningitis, help protect children and their families from illnesses that can otherwise be devastating. In many ways, we are incredibly lucky because vaccines have been so successful that we no longer see the illness that used to be common and feared.
Here are some numbers that reflect the true brilliance of vaccines: Before the measles vaccine was developed, over 500,000 children and adults each year suffered either serious illness or death from the measles virus. Measles is an especially serious virus because it is so easy to catch, and causes serious health complications. For example, 1 in 4 people who get measles will need to be hospitalized. And 1 out of every 1,000 cases of measles will lead to brain swelling that can cause permanent brain damage. One out of every 1,000 people with measles will die. Since the creation of the measles vaccine, there has been a 99% decrease in the number of people in the U.S. that contract the disease each year. But measles is making a strong comeback, and several outbreaks now take place each year, often in communities where immunization rates are low.
Another vaccine that has dramatically improved the health of our teenagers is the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. HPV is a very common virus — nearly 1 in 4 adults are infected with it, often without realizing it. HPV is associated with over 30,000 cases of cancer each year in both men and women. But, since the introduction of the HPV vaccine, the rate of infection has been lowered by 90% in countries with high levels of immunization. The recommendation is to begin the series of two vaccines when children are between 9 and 11 years of age, because this is when the vaccine helps their immune systems create the best long-lasting protection. When it was time for my daughter to receive her HPV vaccine, I felt relief that this vaccine can protect her from a cancer that is hard to detect and often difficult to treat.
In our interconnected world, people travel freely, exposing themselves to the beauty and marvels of the world around us. But with this freedom comes an increased risk of exposure to illnesses that were once very common, now made uncommon by the life-saving invention of vaccines.
Despite confusing information available through social media and other online sources, the truth is that vaccines are very safe and effective, and hundreds of research studies have demonstrated this time and time again. As parents, we are tasked with making decisions to promote the health and well-being of our children. And as a parent and a pediatrician, please know that the heath of your child — and of my children — is my top priority. So I will tell you again: Vaccines are safe and effective.