the vaccine war

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Eileen Costello, M.D.
April 25, 2010 18:17
Eileen Costello M.D.A pediatrician in Boston and co-author of Quirky Kids: Understanding and Helping Your Child Who Doesn't Fit In. She recently completed an autism fellowship at Boston Medical Center and is the mother of three children.

Some parents have asked how we help them think about the wildly different information they hear about vaccines, and how they are supposed to make an informed decision about what is best for their baby or toddler. This is a common occurrence in our pediatric practice.

Most parents come to their first visit to the pediatrician armed with questions. The majority have done their research on the Internet, and anyone who has googled "vaccines" or "vaccines and autism" knows it's overwhelming and very frightening to new parents of young babies. We recognize that anxiety and work with parents to help them understand why we think that vaccinating their babies is in their best interest and in the best interests of the community they live in.

One truth new parents may find hard to accept is that there is no such thing as a risk-free life, and we cannot protect our children from all potential harm. I had the privilege recently of meeting with Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, a pediatrician in his 90's. He is recognized as the father of developmental and behavioral pediatrics.

Asked what he sees as the major difference between today's parents and those in his practice 60 years ago, he commented about the anxiety of today's parents. He noted that we as a group seem committed to preventing any harm from befalling our children, and we feel like failures if we cannot. This plays into the fear that we are harming our children by vaccinating them.

No one can "prove" that vaccines are completely without risk. But history and science do tell us that the diseases they prevent are dramatically more risky. The post from the mom who lost her one month-old son to Pertussis (whooping cough) is an excellent case in point. Pertussis kills very young infants. When a newborn is in my waiting room with unvaccinated children who are coughing, I cannot help but worry that I am exposing that baby to a potentially life threatening disease unnecessarily.

So I talk with parents about the diseases, which most of them are fortunate enough to have little or no experience with. Sometimes I tell them about outbreaks in our own community of vaccine-preventable illnesses - for example, an outbreak at a daycare center here in the 1990s of strep throat and chicken pox at the same time.

The strep bug took advantage of the break in the skin to cause "flesh-eating strep" in a number of kids, several of whom were hospitalized and required surgical treatment of their wounds. The myth that chicken pox (varicella), for example, is always a harmless childhood disease, contributes to the belief of many parents that a vaccine is more dangerous than an illness.

It's difficult in a busy pediatric office, where visits run about 15 minutes each, to spend the time to review this information. But I do it. Because I remember that it's the delightful, adorable, beloved infant that is my patient and my job is to protect him or her to the best of my ability. For me, that means vaccinating.

posted april 27, 2010

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