As the academic year begins, parents seeking to register their child in a new school are legally required to show that their child has received immunizations against many common diseases of early childhood. For the vast majority of parents, this is no problem, because their child has been routinely receiving these vaccinations during scheduled visits to their pediatrician ever since they were born.
American society as a whole has accepted the view of the medical establishment that childhood vaccinations are both safe and necessary to protect the health of our children. But there are parents who accept the views disseminated over the Internet and social media by a small but vocal minority of doctors and researchers who claim that current vaccines, and the way in which they are administered, present significant risks to the health of very young children.
Most parents who cite such concerns are reassured by their pediatricians that their fears are unfounded, and that the vaccines have been scientifically proven to be safe. Public health officials also argue that parents who refuse to allow their child to receive all their vaccinations unfairly endanger other children as well as their own, by increasing the risk of outbreaks of preventable and potentially serious diseases.
But some parents remain fearful, and refuse at least some of the vaccinations prescribed for their child. Under the law in many states, parents are within their rights to refuse to allow their child to be vaccinated due to moral or religious objections, or fear that vaccinations may be unsafe. But as a practical matter, parents are likely to encounter major difficulties in registering their unvaccinated child in the Jewish school of their choice.
While there is widespread acceptance of the safety of vaccination in the scientific community and our culture today, there are parents who are outspoken in their belief that their child’s reaction to a vaccination was responsible for their development of a serious medical condition. One of them is actress Jenny McCarthy, who will gain an influential platform for her anti-vaccination views as a new co-host on the ABC television network’s popular daily talk show, The View, starting in September. McCarthy claims that her 11-year-old son’s diagnosis with autism in 2005 was the result of his reaction to a vaccination. ABC was harshly criticized for McCarthy’s selection by those who believe that her anti-vaccination views are unscientific and pose a real danger to public health. But even some who accept the safety of today’s vaccines suggest that questions and challenges to their safety raised by critics like McCarthy and other concerned parents deserve a fair hearing, and simply rejecting their objections as irresponsible and unscientific will not put them to rest.
Nobody denies that certain vaccines have been extremely valuable in protecting the health of our children. They have saved millions of lives by eliminating smallpox, and avoided the crippling of millions of children by polio. Most of the controversy concerns the safety of specific vaccines for once “routine” childhood diseases which leave the vast majority of children with little or no lasting ill effects.
The most intense controversy today is over the safety of the MMR vaccine, a combination vaccine developed in 1971 to protect against measles (rubeola), mumps and German measles (rubella). The first version of the DPT (diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus) vaccine was developed even earlier, in 1949.
By the mid-1980’s, many state and local jurisdictions had adopted laws requiring parents to show that their child had been immunized with the MMR, DPT and polio vaccines before being allowed to register the child for school. Children typically received five injections by the time they were two years old, and not more than one per doctor’s visit.
Before the introduction of the first measles vaccines during the 1960’s, it was considered to be the most contagious and dangerous of the “typical” diseases of childhood. The chances of developing the disease among those without immunity upon close exposure is 90%, and there is no specific treatment for those who have been infected. The vast majority of infected children will make a full recovery, but complications from measles are common and can be very serious. According to a study conducted in the US 20 years ago, 2 out of every 1,000 patients infected with measles died.