I could not be a pediatrician without vaccines.

Vaccines and technology have helped the human race more than anything else in the past 100 years. The very first vaccine was created in 1796 when Edward Jenner started inoculating against smallpox. We don’t have smallpox anymore; the World Health Organization certified global eradication in 1980. Think about that for a minute: We have eliminated a disease that had a 30% mortality rate (even higher in children).

We came very close to eradicating polio until a small area in Africa became lax on vaccinating. The last reported case was in 2015, so we are close again. This is the goal of any mass vaccination policy: prevent and eliminate. We cannot let our guard down.

Nevertheless, there still are so many misconceptions about vaccines. Some people have real fears based on unsubstantiated hearsay. The most notorious was the 1998 report from a now discredited doctor, Andrew Wakefield, that falsely associated the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine (MMR) with autism. That report has now been proved to be an elaborate fraud.

But the damage is done. Not only has there been a rise in measles cases, but in general, more mistrust and subsequent refusal of any vaccine, all resulting in harm for our children.

Science is the way we can determine the safety and efficacy of anything in an unbiased fashion. This rigorous evaluation of vaccines occurs to ensure we have something safe to give our kids. The benefits far, far exceed any risk.

When parents decide not to vaccinate their children, three things happen: It undermines the parent-physician trust; it potentially puts everyone close to the child at risk; and the child is not protected against diseases that can cause unnecessary sickness, permanent scarring, disability and sometimes death.

There are conflicting feelings among pediatricians about whether to allow unvaccinated children into their practices. Locally, some pediatric practices will not see children whose parents refuse to vaccinate them. Others will do so only reluctantly. The American Academy of Pediatrics does not have a firm policy, but strongly encourages pediatricians to educate parents and continue to offer vaccines, even to those who’ve refused in the past.

During my orientation to medical school, a professor informed us that there were three things as doctors we can do that help ensure health throughout life:

1) Choose your own parents (bad things run in certain families). But since we can’t do that …

2) Breastfeed if at all possible.

3) Vaccinate as much and as often as you can.

The latest statistic I’ve seen is that vaccines are 99.99% safe, that 1 in 1 million has a chance of an adverse event. We engage in activities each day that have a much higher risk, like driving, flying in an airplane, smoking or exposure to second-hand smoke, any surgery, eating junk food and not exercising, to mention a few. Unvaccinated kids are 23 times more likely to get pertussis (whopping cough) and 35 times more likely to get measles.

I fully recognize that some people will believe what they want to believe, no matter what they read or hear from their pediatrician. I want all people to know that vaccines are safe and effective, and we know this through history and statistics over time. We know they are good and important.

I promise you, no pediatrician wants to ever harm or put your child at risk. It’s in our DNA.

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Dr. J. Mark Shreve is a pediatrician at Pediatric Associates of Richmond and is a member of the Richmond Academy of Medicine. Contact him at ramdocs@ramdocs.org.

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