April 24 to May 1 is National Infant Immunization Week.
Over the past 10-12 years, many non-scientific groups have expressed their concern about the safety of childhood immunizations. TV and Internet ads have raised questions in many parents' minds about vaccine safety, particularly regarding vaccines as a cause of autism.
In the past 10 years there have been innumerable research articles indicating that neither vaccines such as MMR nor thimerosal (a preservative currently only in influenza vaccine) have any proven relationship to autism.
The public also should be aware of two federal court decisions regarding MMR and autism. On Feb. 12, 2009, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims rejected claims that thimerosal and MMR cause autism; and last March 12, the same court rejected claims that thimerosal alone causes autism. Hopefully, these events will reassure the public that childhood immunizations are safe.
Childhood vaccines also are effective. They are one of the most important public health advancements of the past 100 years. As examples:
- In the United States, from 1950-1959, more than 257,000 reported cases of paralytic polio -- with 12,000 deaths -- occurred. Since 2000, only one case of polio, (acquired outside the United States) has been reported.
- From the 1950s to the mid-1960s, several hundred thousand cases of measles with hundreds of deaths occurred in the United States each year. After live-attenuated measles vaccines and the requirement of routine measles immunization for school attendance, cases of measles dropped dramatically. Most cases since 2000 are related to travel or visitors from abroad.
- Since the introduction in 2000 of an effective vaccine for infants and children against Streptococcus pneumoniae, there has been a reduction of almost 80 percent in serious, life-threatening S. pneumoniae disease in children. This also has resulted in a reduction of serious S. pneumoniae infections in elderly contacts (i.e. grandparents) as well!
Vaccines are an important part of child care, and keeping infants and children age-appropriately immunized will keep many serious diseases -- some of which are only a plane ride away -- from returning in the United States.
Dennis L. Murray, M.D., FAAP, FIDSA
Christopher B. White, M.D., FAAP
(The writers are board-certified in pediatrics and pediatric infectious diseases.)