The debate over vaccinating children is something of a movement right now, says Kati Eisenhuth, MD, a pediatrician with Geisinger.
“There are certainly a number of voices that speak fairly loudly about being against vaccines, but it is a relatively small amount of the population that flat-out refuses vaccines,” Eisenhuth says. “But it is quite common for parents to have certain questions and to want to be reassured about vaccines, and that’s part of what I do. I welcome those questions. We always want to make sure parents are super-comfortable before they give their children vaccines and that they have all their questions answered.”
Eisenhuth stresses that “any time a parent has questions about putting their child’s safety first, that’s a valid reason” for questioning a vaccination.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean that I think [a parent’s] reasoning [for not vaccinating] may be supported by science, but it’s always valid for them to question it,” says Eisenhuth. “That’s very important.”
Melanie Dunlap is the mother of four children who had her two older kids (now grown) fully vaccinated but stopped vaccinating her younger children after her own research led her to conclude that many vaccines are pushed by big pharmaceutical companies to make a profit, rather than benefit children and society.
“This was something I eased into over the course of several years,” Dunlap says. “When my third child was born, I had made the decision to work toward, as a family, living a healthier lifestyle, including eating healthier. About that time, my sister gave me a DVD about the food system in America called Food Inc. This was like opening a Pandora’s Box because I got to thinking – if the food industry is so corrupt, what about our water, medications, health, and beauty products? I was literally spending every spare moment of my time researching. … I had ventured into studying vaccines and knew enough to be very concerned about injecting any more toxins into my girls.”
Dunlap says another reason she became concerned about vaccinating her children was that she noticed “the total number of vaccines [my older children] received while growing up in the ’90s and early 2000s was significantly less than the number they recommend now. It’s just so many.”
According to immunizeforgood.com, in 1980, there were seven vaccines available, and the possible number of shots children could receive by age 2 was five. By 2014, 14 vaccines were available, and the total number of shots by age 2 had reached 26, though, the website reports, “…today’s vaccines contain fewer antigens,” or anti-body producing substances, such as viruses and bacterium.
Eisenhuth says one of the most common questions she hears from parents concerning vaccines is, “Is it really OK for my child to be getting this many vaccines at one time?”
“The answer is yes, absolutely,” Eisenhuth says. “The number of antigens a child sees in their environment, just by touching something with their hands, or rubbing their eyes, or putting their hands in their mouths, is enormous, and we could never get that many things into a vaccine. So when you think about it, every time a child comes into contact with a virus or bacteria in their environment, it’s kind of like getting a vaccine, in a way. They are coming into contact with it and building an immune response to whatever virus or bacteria they’re in contact with, and there are viruses and bacteria covering every surface all the time.”
Vaccines provide a child with “a relatively small number of antigens compared to what they’re coming across every day in the environment,” Eisenhuth explains, “so we’re in no way overloading their immune system. We aren’t doing anything their immune system doesn’t see on a regular basis.”
Though older vaccines were safe and effective, Eisenhuth says modern vaccines have been “really modified” to limit the number of antigens in each dose, thus reducing the number of reactions, such as fevers, children may experience.
‘Far greater good than harm’
Fernando Herrera has followed the recommended vaccination schedule for his 6-year-old daughter, Emmy.
“To be honest, a conscientious decision to vaccinate, or not, was never made,” Herrera says. “We love Emmy and want the best start in life that she can have. I suppose we relied on unexplored and unspoken reasons, some parts herd mentality: ‘We’ve always done it this way,’ and ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ I know that side-effects are real, but I believe that on a large scale, vaccines do a far greater good than harm.”
Herrera says his concerns about Emmy being around unvaccinated children are “minimal.”
“The responsibility to care for a child is so personal and heavy, many believing that it’s bestowed upon by a higher power, myself included,” says Herrera. “Therefore, it isn’t any of my business to get involved.”
Autism and long-term illnesses
Eisenhuth says another common concern she hears from parents is about vaccines causing autism, asthma, allergies, and other diseases.
“The simple answer is no, vaccines do not cause autism,” Eisenhuth says. “Vaccines do not cause asthma. There is no evidence that they cause autoimmune diseases or any chronic illnesses. There is no evidence to support a link there. And there have been plenty of studies that have actually refuted that link.”
Dunlap says she believes her non-vaccinated children are healthier than her older, vaccinated children were growing up. She says she also sees an unhealthy trend in America, with more children having allergies, asthma, ADHD, juvenile diabetes, cancer, and so forth.
Dunlap says she also has religious and moral objections to some vaccines that use fetal tissue in their development, as well as other byproducts she believes could be toxic.
Eisenhuth says that each vaccine is “developed a little bit differently with a little bit different method,” depending on the vaccine type. Oftentimes, vaccines are grown in chicken egg yolks, though parts of the egg are left out of the vaccine. Your child’s pediatrician would be the best person to ask about what’s included in each vaccine and how it’s made.
Vaccinating against COVID-19
Herrera says he would “definitely” give his daughter a vaccine against COVID-19, if and when it becomes available.
“Of course I want her protected, but an equal reason is our love for those around her,” Herrera says. “She visits her great-grandparents, who are in their 80s, frequently. That relationship is so important to me.”
Dunlap says she will not be vaccinating her children against coronavirus.
“I see no reason why anyone would consider taking a chemical cocktail for a virus with a greater than 99 percent survival rate and a virus that children rarely get, and even if they do, they typically have very mild symptoms,” Dunlap says. “It makes no sense to me.”
Eisenhuth, who has received both rounds of COVID vaccinations currently available for adults, says it’s “hard to speak about a hypothetical vaccine” for children, but that she believes “in the process.”
“The vaccine that’s available for adults, I believe in it strongly,” Eisenhuth says. “Assuming that the process is the same for children when the vaccine comes out, and it’s recommended, I’ll be on board.”
Eisenhuth adds that kids tend to have milder cases of COVID, but the “risk-benefit” ratio of the child receiving the vaccine and the effect doing so has on the community must be weighed.
“There are serious community implications to vaccinating children,” Eisenhuth explains. “This is a virus that children may not get as often, but they are certainly capable of spreading it. And to their family members, there could be much more significant consequences. You could make the argument that protecting a child’s parent is really important to the health of that child.”
Misconceptions and risks
Dunlap says the biggest misconception she encounters is from people who dismiss her as a celebrity-crazed, bandwagon “anti-vaxxer.” She considers herself, rather, not “anti” anything, but “more pro-SAFE vaccine.”
“Sometimes there is an attitude of hostility toward a person who refuses vaccination,” Dunlap says. “Some people can’t fathom a person researching something and coming away with a view other than what they want you to have. My prayer is that people would soon recognize the dangers involved in injecting poisons into the human body. I’m a person of great faith, and I don’t believe for a minute that a God who created us and loved us would leave us destitute and without a means to maintain our healthy bodies. He gave us all the wonderful fruits and vegetables and things in nature full of vitamins and minerals to feed and nourish our bodies, to make us strong and healthy, and to boost our natural immune system. We are only sick in this world because man has destroyed what God has given us.”
Eisenhuth says a certain percentage of a population must be vaccinated (the exact number varies with each virus) to stem widespread sickness, and outbreaks do occur in communities where people have discontinued vaccinating.
“If a child has been vaccinated, in theory, he or she should be immune to the disease he or she has been vaccinated against; however, there is no vaccine available that is 100 percent effective,” Eisenhuth says. “For instance, with the measles vaccine, most people respond well to the first vaccine. We give a second vaccine to catch the other 10 percent of the population that doesn’t respond well to the first round. A very small population won’t respond to two rounds of vaccinations, and 90 percent of the population has to be vaccinated to maintain herd immunity [against measles]. Any time a population drops below 90 percent, there’s a risk there could be an outbreak in that small community. But because so much of our population has been vaccinated, that makes us much safer.”
Eisenhuth says we should be “vaccinating everybody we can” to minimize transmitting diseases as much as possible, especially to the most vulnerable members of society.
“The other side of the coin is there are children who can’t receive some of these vaccines, whether they’re going through chemotherapy, or they have an immunodeficiency, there are some kids who can’t receive them,” Eisenhuth notes.
Teresa Mull is a freelance writer in Philipsburg.