January 26th, 2009
01:29 PM ET

Parental concerns persist with childhood vaccines

By Andrea M. Kane
CNNhealth.com Producer

A small drama is unfolding in Minnesota. Five cases of Haemophilus influenzae type B (known as Hib) disease were documented in 2008 – the most since 1992. But this is more than just five individual tragedies. It’s tragedy times two – because a vaccine exists to prevent Hib disease, and it has been routinely given to children in this country as part of the standard vaccine schedule since 1991.

Hib is a serious bacterial infection that usually occurs in infants and children under 5. It can lead to meningitis (infection of the brain and spinal cord coverings); pneumonia; infection of the blood, joint, bones and covering of the heart; and severe swelling of the throat. Sometimes, it results in death. Before the vaccine, there were about 20,000 cases of Hib disease each year and Hib was responsible for up to 60 percent of all cases of meningitis (resulting in death 2 to 5 percent of the time, and producing lasting brain damage and deafness 15 to 30 percent of the time).

Part of the problem is that there has been a national shortage of the Hib vaccine since November 2007, and Minnesota has been particularly hard hit. The other part of the problem is that some of the parents did not immunize their children (admittedly, I have no knowledge of their motivation). According to Minnesota officials, three of the five cases - including the one death - occurred in unimmunized children (in the other cases, one child was too young to complete the four-dose series and the other child had an underlying condition).

I am a parent. I have two young girls, now 7 and 9. And, like every parent, I like to believe that I am doing the best I can to protect them. And for me, part of that is to make sure they are vaccinated.

But I’d be lying if I said that, when it came time to immunize them during their toddler years, I didn’t worry that they might  develop autism.

Stories suggesting a link between vaccines and autism are very pervasive  and proponents of the theory are vocal. But even though there is no scientifically sound research to support it, the speculation persists. Despite the emotion inherent in this debate, I am a medical writer who has read many studies finding no connection between autism and vaccines- including a recent one from California showing that the incidence of autism had actually gone up despite the removal of the mercury-based preservative thimerosal from most vaccines and an earlier study from Denmark.

Still, in the back of my mind, a little voice whispered, “What if one of my girls is genetically predisposed, and this is the environmental trigger…” Or “What if one of my girls receives one too many vaccines today, and it pushes her immune system over the edge.”

But all I had to do was take a look at my own mother, who has lived with the consequences of polio, a disease she contracted when she was 2 – way before the polio vaccine ever existed - and my resolve was hardened. Growing up, I heard stories (never from her) about how she spent months at a time in a body cast, and how my grandparents were at first heartbroken and then sought to shelter her from life’s daily insults. I know intimately the criss-cross of scars on her legs, the clippity-clop sound of her particular gait, and the swift hand-on-knee movement she makes to manually move her leg in and out of a car. And I can see where her quiet-but-unyielding determination, and her dignity in the face of adversity came from. And her ordeal is not over: she now gets to worry about post-polio syndrome.

I love my mother and I wouldn’t change anything about her but I would do anything - especially vaccinate my kids - to avoid my children having to go through anything like what she experienced and continues to go through. Vaccines were developed to spare our children pain, damage, disfigurement and death. It seems ridiculous not to avail myself of the tools I have been offered to protect them from diseases we know can and will hurt them.

Did you, will you vaccinate your children? Tell us why or why not.

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Filed under: Autism • Children's Health • Parenting • Vaccinations

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