- Healthy Kids Q&A: Immunizations
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Healthy Kids Q&A: Immunizations


When it comes to their children's immunizations, some parents are choosing to listen to more than their doctor for information. Parents, guardians and other caregivers are getting medical advice from message boards, blogs and other online sources. As a result, concerns and rumors have spread regarding the safety and purpose of vaccines given to children. It's About Children asked Dr. Lori Patterson about these common questions and misconceptions of immunizations.

Q: How do immunizations work?
A vaccine contains pieces of a dead or weakened disease-producing germ. When those pieces are injected (or swallowed for a few vaccines), the body recognizes them as "not self" and makes antibodies (protective proteins) against them. This gives the person immunity against that specific infection, so the next time the individual "runs into" that live germ, his or her body can fight it off before it has a chance to make the person sick.

Q: Will vaccines weaken my child's immune system?
No. They actually strengthen the immune system by making it able to respond more quickly to the germs the person has been vaccinated against.

Q: Can immunizations cause the disease it is supposed to prevent?
It is impossible to develop a disease from vaccines made with dead bacteria or viruses. Only vaccines made with weakened live viruses - like the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine (MMR) - could make a child develop a mild case of the disease, but it is usually less severe than the illness itself. The risk of significant disease from vaccination is extremely small.

Q: Can immunizations cause a bad reaction in my child?
Common, minor reactions to vaccines might include:
  • Soreness and tenderness where the shot was given
  • Swelling where the shot was given
  • Fever
Of the millions of children vaccinated every year, very few experience severe side effects. In rare cases, a child may have an allergic reaction or a seizure. Before vaccines are given, notify the doctor of your child's history of allergies caused by food or medications. The risk of a significant reaction is much, much less than the risks posed by the diseases themselves.

Q: Do immunizations or thimerosal cause autism?
Numerous studies have found absolutely no link between vaccines and autism. Still, to reduce exposure to the tiny amount of mercury contained in thimerosal (a mercury-containing preservative used in some vaccines), vaccine manufacturers started removing the chemical from vaccines in 1999. Most vaccines for children now contain no thimerosal. The autism claim was made in a 1998 paper concerning a possible link to the MMRvaccine; the paper was retracted in 2004, and its lead author was found guilty of fraud. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have all rejected any link between autism and any vaccine. The real tragedy is that we have spent so much time and money barking up this wrong tree, resources that could have been used to find the real cause of autism.

Q: Why should I vaccinate my child against diseases that are rare or close to elimination?
While a disease may be rare or nonexistent in the United States, they can still cause problems elsewhere in the world. Vaccines are necessary to protect against contracting these diseases through travel. This includes Americans traveling overseas and those who bring in a disease with them while visiting the United States. When a disease becomes completely eradicated worldwide, it is then safe to stop vaccinations for that disease, but so far the only infection we've been able to do that for is smallpox.

Q: How long does a vaccine's immunity work?
Some vaccines, such as the series for measles, can last for an entire lifetime. Others can last for years but require follow-up shots (boosters) periodically. These boosters allow for continuing immunity against a disease. The tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis booster (Tdap) keeps children and adults from losing their immunity to these diseases. Be sure to keep a good record of your child's immunizations to help your doctor know when it's time to give a booster.

Q: Should I give my child the HPV vaccine?
Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines protect against strains of the virus which causes most cases of cervical cancer. Girls aged 11 or 12 should receive the vaccine, and it is also recommended for those aged 13 through 26 who have not been vaccinated or completed the vaccine series. For each licensed vaccine, experts have found that the benefits of preventing the disease far outweigh any risk from the vaccine. Boys and men can also get vaccinated with the HPV vaccine to prevent transmitting cancer-causing types of HPV to women. The vaccine also helps prevent genital warts, one of the most common sexually-transmitted diseases.

Q: Why are new flu shots required every year?
Influenza is a virus that constantly changes every year, and the vaccine must change with it. A new flu shot is required each year to protect against the newest strain. A flu shot can reduce a person's chances of getting the flu by up to 80% during flu season. The vaccine doesn't protect against all strains of the flu, and it's still possible to contract the virus. However, symptoms are usually milder and easier to get over if a person has been vaccinated. Also, immunity from a flu vaccine only lasts for a year or so.

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