Glenn Ellis

*Vaccination is a controversial subject, and many parents worry about subjecting their children to them. Vaccines have caused a lot of controversy in recent years, often confusing—and scaring—parents about the pros and cons of immunizations. Should you vaccinate your child and protect her from more than a handful of infectious diseases, or are the shots themselves more harmful than helpful?

Many for you are preparing your child(ren) for the beginning of the school year. For some children this will be the start of their schooling, which means the school requirements for vaccinations.

How do you make the decision? What do you really understand? Well, here’s a little information to help you in the process.

Now that vaccines have virtually eliminated many once-feared diseases, the possibility of vaccine side effects or adverse reactions loom larger in some people’s minds than the diseases that vaccines prevent. Most parents today have never seen a case of diphtheria or measles, and some wonder why their children must receive so many shots. Rumors and misinformation about vaccine safety abound. For example, many parents are concerned that multiple vaccines may weaken or overwhelm an infant’s immune system or that certain vaccines may cause autism, multiple sclerosis, or diabetes.

By the mid-1980s, there were seven vaccines: diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, measles, mumps, rubella and polio. Because six of these vaccines were combined into two shots (DTP and MMR), and one, the polio vaccine, was given by mouth, children still received five shots by the time they were 2 years old and not more than one shot at a single visit. 

Since the mid-1980s, many vaccines have been added to the schedule. Now, children could receive as many as 24 shots by 2 years of age and five shots in a single visit. The result is that the vaccine schedule has become much more complicated than it once was, and children are receiving far more shots than they ever did.

Adolescents, like adults, were recommended to get tetanus boosters every 10 years; most requiring their first booster dose around age 11. Other than this, however, most adolescents did not require additional vaccines unless they missed one in childhood. By 2005, vaccines specifically recommended for adolescents were only recommended for sub-groups of adolescents based on where they lived or medical conditions that they had.    However, a new group of vaccines has become available in the latter part of the decade.   Vaccines for meningococcus and human papillomavirus (HPV) as well as expanded recommendations for influenza now provide opportunities for adolescents to be protected as they enter their teenage years.

Infectious disease was the leading cause of death in children 100 years ago, with diphtheria, measles, scarlet fever, and pertussis accounting for most them. Today the leading causes of death in children less than five years of age are accidents, genetic abnormalities, developmental disorders, sudden infant death syndrome, and cancer.

Certainly, the number of vaccinations recommended for children has mushroomed over the past two decades. In 1985, children were vaccinated for seven diseases. Now, that number is 16.

What this means is that a child can receive as many as 30 shots by age 6!

Most parents dutifully take their infants to the doctor or clinic at the prescribed times to be vaccinated. Generally, it doesn’t occur to them to question this public health institution. However, growing numbers of doctors, scientists and parents have become suspicious about the long-term implications of what some consider a national experiment posturing as solid science. In many ways, the development of immunization theory has been compromised by the theory’s very successes.

The history of vaccines does indeed have some glorious chapters. In 1796, British country doctor Edward Jenner formulated a vaccine that led to the global eradication in our time of the deadly smallpox virus. A century later, French chemist Louis Pasteur formulated a vaccine against rabies and even foresaw serums made from nonliving substances that would one day materialize as synthetic, chemical vaccines.

To understand how vaccines teach your body to fight infection, let’s first look at how the immune system fends off and learns from a naturally occurring infection. Then we’ll examine how vaccines mimic this process.

Imagine you are a dock worker on the piers of Philadelphia. The year is 1793. As you are unloading crates of tea and spices from an oceangoing ship, a mosquito bites you on the arm. This mosquito carries the virus that causes yellow fever, which the mosquito picked up when it bit a sailor who recently returned from Africa. So now you have thousands of yellow fever viruses swarming into your body. In fact, you have become part of an infamous epidemic that will claim the lives of 10 percent of the people in Philadelphia, and all that stands between you and a fatal case of yellow fever is your immune system.

Your immune system is a complex network of cells and organs that evolved to fight off infectious microbes. Much of the immune system’s work is carried out by an army of various specialized cells, each type designed to fight disease in a particular way. The invading viruses first run into the vanguard of this army, which includes big and tough patrolling white blood cells called macrophages (literally, “big eaters”). The macrophages grab onto and gobble up as many of the viruses as they can, engulfing them into their blob-like bodies.

While your immune system works to rid your body of yellow fever, you feel awful. You lie in bed, too dizzy and weak even to sit up. During the next several days, your skin becomes yellow (or jaundiced) and covered with purple spots. You vomit blood. Your doctor looks grim and tired: He knows that as many as 20 percent of people who contract yellow fever die, and the epidemic is spreading fast through the city.

You are one of the lucky ones, though. After about a week, your immune system gains the upper hand. Your T cells and antibodies begin to eliminate the virus faster than it can reproduce. Gradually, the virus disappears from your body, and you feel better. You get out of bed. Eventually, you go back to working the docks. If you are ever bitten by another mosquito carrying the yellow fever virus, you won’t get the disease again. You won’t even feel slightly sick. You have become immune to yellow fever because of another kind of immune system cell: memory cells. After your body eliminated the disease, some of your yellow-fever-fighting B cells and T cells converted into memory cells. These cells will circulate through your body for the rest of your life, ever watchful for a return of their enemy. Memory B cells can quickly divide into plasma cells and make more yellow fever antibody if needed. Memory T cells can divide and grow into a yellow-fever-fighting army. If that virus shows up in your body again, your immune system will act swiftly to stop the infection.


Vaccines teach your immune system by working in the same way and mimicking a natural infection.

No vaccine is perfectly safe or effective. Each person’s immune system works differently, so occasionally a person will not respond to a vaccine.  Very rarely, a person may have a serious adverse reaction to a vaccine, such as an allergic reaction that causes hives or difficulty breathing. But serious reactions are reported so infrequently—on the order of 1 in 100,000 vaccinations—that they can be difficult to detect and confirm. More commonly, people will experience temporary side effects, such as fever, soreness, or redness at the injection site. These side effects are, of course, preferable to getting the illness.

The decision to vaccinate your child is a personal one. Whatever you decide, it’s important that you have enough information to make a good decision…one you can live with. Hope this helps!

Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.

Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!

The information included in this column is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan.

Glenn Ellis,  is a Health Advocacy Communications Specialist. He is the author of Which Doctor?, and is  a health columnist and radio commentator who lectures, and is an active media contributor nationally and internationally on health related topics.

His second book, “Information is the Best Medicine”, is due out in Fall, 2011.

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