The decision about whether or not to immunize our children is every parent’s right, and responsibility. Because it is such a significant decision, it’s important to base it on the best scientifically verified information available.
On line, some of the best places to find this information are:
The vast majority of vaccine side effects (adverse events) are minor and temporary, like a sore arm with some redness at the injection site, or mild fever. They are easily controlled by taking acetaminophen. Serious side effects are very rare, and it is often very hard to determine if a ‘reaction’ is directly linked to a vaccine or would have happened without the immunization.
In fact, adverse events are so rare that the risk can’t be accurately assessed. Take Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS), for example. Cases of GBS have been reported within weeks following vaccination, but GBS has several possible causes and may occur without any identified cause. GBS occurs in about one in a million people who get immunized against influenza. However, GBS also occurs spontaneously in the population, often after a viral infection such as influenza, hepatitis A and B, and Hemophilus influenza, all of which are vaccine preventable.
Just because we live in Yukon doesn’t mean we’re safe from vaccine-preventable diseases. Diseases travel from country to country and even if you never leave the territory, if you aren’t immunized, you are at risk.
Take measles, for instance. While the disease was essentially eradicated in 2002, pockets of measles have been springing up thanks to people not getting their immunizations. In 2011, there was an outbreak of measles in Canada, with the majority of the cases taking place in Quebec. In 2014, cases have been reported in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario.
And being familiar with the disease doesn’t mean it is harmless. Too often, familiarity makes us a little cavalier about diseases we have heard about all our lives. Since 2011, there have been more than 106,000 cases of measles in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and 1,100 deaths. And yet, too often we shrug off measles as “just a childhood disease.”
Diseases can return quickly when we let our guard down. In 1994, for example, there were 5,000 deaths from diphtheria in Russia after the organized immunization system was suspended. Until then, Russia had experienced only a few cases of diphtheria every year, and no deaths. Small outbreaks can turn into epidemics if most people aren’t protected.
And then there’s the “herd immunity” factor. It sounds funny, but it’s a very real principle. Some people cannot get vaccinated for medical reasons. When the rest of us are immunized, we help protect those around us who can’t get vaccinated.
No vaccine is 100 per cent effective, and some vaccines take up to two weeks to become fully effective. In an outbreak, some small percentage of immunized people, depending on the disease, may still get sick.
That said, in an outbreak many of those who don’t get immunized WILL get sick. And they will spread the illness to those around them, including people who can’t get immunized, such as infants, or those who have an underlying medical condition that puts them at risk of serious illness or even death if they get sick. In the 2013-14 Yukon flu season, 90 per cent of those who became sick with confirmed influenza had not been immunized.
As for those who still get sick in spite of being immunized, their immunization will protect them against the worst symptoms of the illness.
Unless you live in a bubble, immunization is the best way to prevent illness and reduce the risk of transmitting infections to those around you.
Immunization works by strengthening the immune system against a specific disease. To fight off the invading disease, our immune system must first recognize it… but it can only recognize it if it has been exposed to the disease.
An unimmunized body spends precious time learning what kind of invader it faces. Then it spends more time learning how to fight it. During this time, the disease can be causing harm – sometimes great harm. Once the disease has run its course, the body will recognize the disease and be able to quickly repel a second attack. That’s how natural immunization works.
Immunization introduces minute amounts of the killed or extremely weakened disease into the body. This galvanizes the body’s defenses against the invader. In effect, the immunization teaches the body to recognize the invader at no risk to itself. Then, when the “real deal” comes along, the body recognizes the danger and is able to fend it off.
Immunization is a shortcut, making sure the body has already done the work of building up its defences against those particular diseases. An immunized person can fight off the disease before it can get a foothold.
Peer-reviewed research using the best scientific methods provides strong evidence that:
Immunization is one of the most effective public health interventions in history and has saved millions of lives. Because of immunization, there are hundreds of thousands of children today who are not paralyzed by polio; who have not faced the devastation of smallpox or measles; who are not born with birth defects due to rubella; and who have not suffered agonizing deaths from tetanus.
Dr. Brendan Hanley, Yukon Chief Medical Officer of Health
In Canada, every single batch of vaccine is tested and meets rigorous safety standards before it reaches the public. Vaccines are some of the safest medical products available. Once they are on the market, they continue to undergo rigorous evaluations of their safety. Serious side effects such as severe allergic reactions are very rare.
On the other hand, the diseases that vaccines fight present serious threats. Diseases like polio, diphtheria, measles and pertussis (whooping cough) can lead to paralysis, pneumonia, choking, brain damage, heart problems, and even death. The dangers of vaccine-preventable diseases far outweigh the risk of a serious reaction to the vaccine.
For example, Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS) occurs in about one in a million people who get immunized against influenza. However, GBS also occurs spontaneously in the population, often after a viral infection such as influenza, hepatitis A and B, and Hemophilus influenza, all of which are vaccine preventable.
In the United States… an estimated 3,000 to 6,000 people develop GBS each year on average, whether or not they received a immunization.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/vaccine/guillainbarre.htm Most vaccines incorporate the killed or weakened disease virus or bacterium in their formula. When we are immunized, our bodies recognize the weakened form of the disease as an invader, and the immune system is stimulated into repelling it. That way, when we are exposed to the “live” or full-strength invader, our bodies are already on guard and can protect us against the disease.
Vaccines often also include substances called adjuvants, which work to enhance our immune system’s response, and preservatives to keep the vaccine safe from bacterial contamination.
Thimerosal is a preservative used in some vaccines. It contains trace amounts of mercury, which worries some people. In reality, only a few of the vaccines used in Canada today contain thimerosal, the amount used in those vaccines is minute, and the mercury used does not accumulate in our bodies, unlike the mercury found in fish.
Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) said: “The weight of evidence now available, however, refutes any link between thimerosal and autism. Therefore, NACI concludes that there is no reason for vaccine providers or other health care professionals who may counsel individuals regarding immunization to raise any concerns about exposure to thimerosal.”
Contrary to some opinions, vaccines do not contain anti-freeze. Curiously enough, however, formaldehyde is used to inactivate or weaken the virus or bacteria when making the vaccine, after which it is removed. Trace amounts may remain in the vaccine, but they pose no danger to us. In fact, our bodies produce more formaldehyde naturally than any amount contained in vaccines.
No vaccine is released in Canada without tight scrutiny by, and approval of Health Canada.
Even when a new vaccine is urgently needed to deal with a new disease (remember the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic?), the vaccine will not be approved for use until Health Canada has determined that the available evidence meets its strict criteria for safety and effectiveness.
Manufacturers must submit scientific and clinical evidence proving the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine. They must also demonstrate high standards of quality in the manufacturing process.
And finally, vaccines that have been approved are evaluated on an ongoing basis by Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada.