How Vaccinations Affect My Family
Recently I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about an issue that has a real impact on my family. This same issue has also been in the news almost daily. And while this combination may sound like a recipe for a great blog post, I have to admit that I have been a bit reluctant to write about such a hot button topic. Still, it is also an issue that is extremely relevant to the members of this online community – those of us living with compromised immune systems and relying on immunosuppressants to control our diseases. So I’m going to go ahead and discuss it: vaccinations. Or, more specifically, the lack thereof.
Vaccinations are designed to protect people against infectious diseases by helping their immune systems develop immunity to specific types of infections. Scientists have developed vaccines for many highly contagious diseases, such as measles and whooping cough. Vaccines have made these deadly diseases preventable, effectively eliminating them in the United States.
Until recently. Now, despite vaccines for these diseases being available for multiple decades, outbreaks of measles and whooping cough have returned to the headlines. Why are these outbreaks happening? Although the issue is complicated, health officials say that one key culprit is that more and more people are choosing not to have their children vaccinated. And that is something that honestly scares me.
Because here’s the thing: the success of vaccinations depends on “herd immunity.” No vaccine is 100% effective and some people can’t receive immunizations for health reasons. This means that, in order for “herd immunity” to protect all of us, at least 85% to 95% of the population needs to be vaccinated. But when too many people in one geographic area fail to protect their children against preventable diseases, those diseases can break through the growing holes in the herd and cause worse and worse outbreaks.
My home state of Colorado is one of 20 states in which parents can opt out of vaccinating their children – and still send those children to public schools. And while there are a million things I love about living in Boulder, Colorado, I was recently stunned to read that an estimated seven percent of the parents in the Boulder Valley School District opted out of having their children vaccinated in 2011. In fact, Boulder has such a lenient Personal Belief Exemption to vaccination that last year almost 3,000 kindergarten children did not receive vaccinations. Unfortunately, the higher the percentage of children in a school that are not vaccinated, the higher the chance of an outbreak.
And that is truly worrisome for my family. For one thing, although my older son is fully vaccinated, vaccines are never 100% effective. For every 100 children that are vaccinated, there are always a few who will not receive immunity. So it is still possible for my fully vaccinated child to get sick if there is an outbreak. Then there is my younger son, an infant who is not old enough to be fully vaccinated, but who will still be exposed to whatever germs his big brother picks up at school. Until my younger son can be vaccinated, he depends on herd immunity to avoid getting sick.
And then there’s me – and my compromised immune system. I have two autoimmune diseases: rheumatoid arthritis and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Just having these diseases greatly decreases my body’s ability to fight invaders, causing vulnerability to infections. And, to make matters worse, the medications that I depend on to control my RA symptoms are also immunosuppressants. These drugs purposely weaken my immune system even further in order to stop the symptoms of my RA. So, despite being vaccinated myself, my compromised and suppressed immune system make the chances of me catching an infectious disease from one of my son’s unvaccinated classmates very real.
Parents who choose not to vaccinate their children often cite a 1998 study that posited a link between the MMR vaccine and autism, but this link has been widely discredited by the scientific community. Other parents have raised concerns that the CDC’s recommended vaccination schedule could overwhelm an infant’s immune system by packing too many doses into a short period of time. But while the number of vaccinations that kids receive today is higher than it used to be, the main ingredients in the vaccines have actually decreased in amount. And while there is always risk of minor side effects, the majority of the scientific community agrees that routine childhood vaccinations prevent illness and save lives.
The decision to vaccinate not only protects your children, it also protects my children. And it protects all of us who are living every day with compromised immune systems.