April 30, 2019

Vaccination hesitancy: Causes and consequences

Preventing disease through vaccination is safe, effective, and can help protect our community from a resurgence of measles cases.

When parents hesitate to vaccinate their babies, it's usually because they are worried about their children's well-being.

Doctors are concerned too, which is why they recommend vaccinations to protect children's health.  

"Vaccines prevent severe and life-threatening diseases, many of which caused numerous deaths in the era before vaccines were available," said Allison Carroll, MD, a pediatrician at Kaiser Permanente's Mt. Scott Medical Office.

Yet parents’ concerns about vaccine safety sometimes lead them to delay or skip their children’s immunizations. 

"Although parents have the best intentions, and they want to protect their children, they are not aware of the many benefits of vaccines."

A global threat

This is called "vaccine hesitancy," which the World Health Organization has named a global threat. Despite the fact that the United States had officially eliminated measles as of the year 2000, vaccine hesitancy has contributed to a resurgence of measles in the U.S.

Between January and April of 2019, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed 555 individual cases of measles in 20 states. That's fast approaching the total number of cases recorded during the entire year of the last major outbreak, in 2014, when the agency logged 667 cases.

The Pacific Northwest, where Dr. Carroll practices, has seen particularly high rates of measles outbreak, compared to other places in the U.S.

"Vaccination rates in the Pacific Northwest are lower than in other areas of the country," Dr. Carroll said. "I see a lot of families who say vaccines are not natural, or a friend of a friend had a negative reaction to the vaccine."

Protecting our communities

"Vaccines not only protect you and your children, but also those who are very vulnerable to disease, including those with weakened immune systems," she added. "If the number of vaccinated individuals drops below a certain percentage, it invites that disease back into the community."

She said serious adverse reactions to vaccines are so rare — literally one in a million — that she has never seen one in her clinic.

"The side effects of vaccines are short-lived and treatable, such as sleepiness, fever, or soreness," Dr. Carroll said.

Parents worry that preservatives in vaccines contain mercury from the antiseptic compound thimerosal.

"No pediatric vaccines used by Kaiser Permanente have thimerosal. In any case, thimerosal is very different from the mercury in thermometers," she said.

Parents also express concern about a purported link between the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and autism, a belief rooted in a 1998 study that was subsequently retracted.

"Numerous studies show no link between vaccines and autism," Dr. Carroll said.

Parents also often express worry that the sheer number of vaccines will overwhelm babies' immune systems.

"When babies get their first round of vaccines at 2 months of age, their immune system is primed," Dr. Carroll said. "They come across more viruses in the air than they get in their vaccines."

Because misinformation continues to circulate, Dr. Carroll has a clear message: "Vaccines are very safe. The benefits far outweigh the minimal risks.”

Download a PDF or view the text version below.

Text version:

Amid the largest U.S. measles outbreak in almost 20 years, let’s review why you should vaccinate:

  • Harmful  –  even deadly – diseases have not been wiped out, and they can easily return.
  • Vaccines are safe. They’re studied extensively before and after they are released.
  • Outbreaks won’t happen when almost everyone gets vaccinated.
  • When you vaccinate your children, you protect them, along with vulnerable people, babies, and future generations.

Vaccines can save your child’s life.