As a practicing pediatrician for more than 30 years, I’ve realized that the small minority of parents who decline certain vaccines aren’t necessarily opposed to them. They’re hungry for more information, research and data on vaccine safety. They want to make a carefully informed decision. Often they’ve stumbled across vaccine myths on the Internet, which can sweep through blogs and social media as quickly as the diseases vaccines are trying to prevent, leaving more questions than answers.

It’s time parents know all the facts.

A bipartisan bill introduced at the State Capitol (H.F. 393 and S.F. 380) would ensure that parents who are vaccine hesitant have an open conversation with a medical provider before enrolling their unimmunized child in a school or a day care. Currently, parents need only submit a notarized letter to opt out of school or day care immunization requirements.

This bill does not take away a parent’s choice for an exemption, but rather ensures that a parent receives reliable information and understands the risk involved with this decision. States with lax exemption processes, such as Minnesota, tend to have lower vaccination rates and higher vaccine-preventable diseases. This bill could help curb future outbreaks due to clusters of unvaccinated children.

When parents consider delaying or declining vaccines altogether, I give them three reasons to reconsider.

First, vaccines are remarkably safe. Millions of children receive vaccines every year in the United States and around the world, and serious side effects are extremely rare.

Second, vaccines are extremely effective, virtually eliminating the possibility of contracting certain deadly diseases. Thanks to vaccines, the vast majority of children in this country will grow up without suffering the ravaging effects of smallpox, polio or other life-threatening diseases.

Third, vaccines protect more than the child who receives them. They offer a critical layer of protection for members of that child’s family and community who cannot be vaccinated due to their age or an underlying medical condition. One parent’s decision to immunize could save the life of another person.

Finally, when parents ask me why they should immunize their child, I explain that the risks of not vaccinating are far greater than the risks of possible vaccine complications, which are exceedingly rare.

Consider measles, for example, which is so contagious that it can be caught from a sneeze. Before the measles vaccine was available, nearly everyone in the United States contracted the disease, and hundreds died per year. On the other hand, the risk of experiencing an allergic reaction from the vaccine is about one in a million. Severe reactions occur so rarely with the MMR vaccine that it’s difficult to calculate whether they’re caused by the vaccine itself or some other factor. The vaccine has been proven over and over again not to cause autism.

It’s worth noting that measles and other diseases still occur in the United States at very low levels, so if immunization rates drop even slightly, we will be prone to even more outbreaks.

To those who question whether this bill is an issue of parents’ rights, it is indeed. Nearly 8 out of 10 Americans want vaccines to be required before sending their children to school or day care. Parents should have the right to send their children to public places without inadvertently exposing them to vaccine-preventable diseases.

I have cared for children suffering from measles, whooping cough, HIB meningitis and other vaccine-preventable diseases, and it’s devastating. I’m so grateful I was never a victim, because my parents had me vaccinated as a child. And I would never consider leaving my own children vulnerable to these deadly diseases, which is why I chose to have them vaccinated.

Personal decisions that affect only you may be open to debate, but they cross into another realm entirely when they affect your neighbor and her children.

Legislators need to support this bill. We should do everything in our power to provide credible and accurate information about vaccines to parents — information that can protect our children and the health of our schools, day cares and communities.

 

Dawn Martin chairs the Immunization Work Group of the Minnesota chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.