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A Dose of Reality

The Truth About Childhood Vaccines

It’s clear to us that the question of whether today’s childhood vaccines are safe has been answered. Studies that linked childhood vaccines to autism have been debunked. And the preservative that ignited a decadelong debate hasn’t been used in government-recommended vaccines for more than 8 years. And yet, some parents still are reluctant to give their children a bundle of shots that can prevent more than a dozen diseases.

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It’s understandable why Seattle mother Betsy Hubbard felt anxiety in her stomach and tears in her eyes when she drove her infant daughter to get her first vaccinations 17 years ago. At the time, the rumors that childhood vaccinations could cause neurological damage had just started, and Hubbard never had been more afraid.

“All the way to the doctor’s office, I replayed the stories I’d heard about children getting sick from immunizations,” Hubbard remembers. “What if my baby was one of those who had a rare adverse reaction?”

Hubbard’s daughter received her shots without any complications, which is the case with the vast majority of vaccinations, yet the story of this mother’s worry is poignant. For decades, parental anxiety about childhood immunization has run so high that even Hubbard—a nurse and immunization coordinator—panicked over what she knew was the healthiest decision for her child.

It’s surprising that 17 years later—years after flawed studies that linked childhood vaccines and autism had been debunked and years after the mercury-tinged preservative that ignited a decadelong debate had been removed from government-recommended childhood vaccines—Hubbard says the fear of immunization has an even more paralyzing grip on parents in her clinic.

Despite unfounded claims that childhood vaccines cause everything from autism to attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), we believe that the evidence is clear that it is safe to give children government-recommended shots that protect against 15 diseases for boys and 16 diseases for girls. Consumers Digest arrived at this conclusion after we interviewed 25 vaccine experts and analyzed more than 1,000 pages of medical studies, scientific reports and news accounts.

In short, science doesn’t support the notion that vaccines present hidden dangers to the health of your infant or toddler. For one, thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative that generated so much controversy and fear, was removed from government-recommended vaccines in 2001. Besides, assertions that vaccines that contain thimerosal triggered neurological problems, such as autism and ADHD, largely have been shot down by medical experts and scientific studies. In February, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims ruled against families who claim that their children’s autism was caused by vaccines that contained the mercury-tinged preservative.

Inside Immunizations

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Even so, the anti-vaccine activists that we interviewed aren’t deterred. They insist that there’s still not enough evidence to prove that vaccines are safe. And yet, medical experts say vaccines are studied rigorously by academic, pharmaceutical and government researchers before they come to market, and they are monitored scrupulously afterward by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Food and Drug Administration.

“Vaccines are remarkably well-tested,” says Dr. Paul A. Offit, chief of infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “Technically speaking, they are safer than over-the-counter vitamins and most of the foods that we eat. Even so, the most well-educated, well-informed parents can lose sight of this in our current age of vaccine anxiety.”

Based on all of the evidence, we believe that immunizations accomplish their mission of keeping the public protected. As a result, we believe that most parents should not hesitate to have their children vaccinated, because in the overwhelming majority of cases, the benefits far outweigh the risks. There are exceptions (which we will discuss later), but in 2009, vaccines are, in essence, safe shots.

FEAR FACTOR. We wouldn’t blame anyone for being wary of childhood shots and being skeptical of the reason why the number of vaccines that are recommended by the federal government increased to 13 from 4 since 1969. (See “Inside Immunizations.") According to IMS Health, a consulting company that is based in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., vaccines were a $5 billion industry in the United States in 2008, but these revenues pale when compared with those of blockbuster drugs, such as cholesterol-lowering Lipitor, which by itself reaped nearly $8 billion in U.S. sales that same year.

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