Common Questions About Vaccines, Answered

The Center for Disease Control recommends that babies get their first shot (Hepatitis B) at birth and a host of other vaccines, including rotavirus, tetanus, and polio, at two months. Although this may seem unreasonably early, Dr. Denise Benkel of the New York City Department of Health states, “the actual risk is to wait with vaccines.”

That’s because the only disease that’s been totally eliminated by vaccines is smallpox, and that vaccine is no longer given. All of the recommended vaccines prevent diseases that still infect people even though some, like polio, are rare in the United States. But, says Dr. Benkel, even these rare diseases are “just a plane ride away.”

“In many cases,” she adds, “it’s not even a plane ride away.” There have been an increasing number of outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases like measles, pertussis (whooping cough), and chicken pox in the United States in recent years. The most publicized was the measles outbreak at Disneyland in 2014, but there was also an epidemic of chicken pox in Brooklyn last year. When vaccines are delayed, “that child is vulnerable to some of the diseases we’re trying to eliminate,” Dr. Benkel says.

Some parents are reluctant to vaccinate because of an oft-debunked theory that vaccines can cause autism. The study that famously purported to find a connection between the two, a 1998 paper by Andrew Wakefield, was retracted in 2010. Wakefield lost his medical license. The scientific community widely acknowledges that the link does not exist. The myth persists, Dr. Benkel explains, because “it’s found a nice little home on the internet.” She also emphasized the role that parents’ peer groups play in convincing them to vaccinate or not: “Sometimes it’s hard to go against your peer group and say, ‘No, I’m listening to my doctor, I’m listening to information from the CDC or information from the New York City Health Department that says there’s no link between autism and vaccinations.’”

Some parents rely on herd immunity instead of vaccines to protect their children, believing that the large number of immunized people will prevent the spread of disease. Although the theory holds, Dr. Benkel explains: “All you need is more than one person to think that and the logic does not work anymore.” An overwhelmingly large percentage of the population needs to be vaccinated in order for herd immunity to work. “It’s a very precarious herd,” Dr. Benkel says, “so we really have to immunize everybody and on time and as early as possible.”

It can be scary for parents to bring in young children for shots, especially because they often cry. But, Dr. Benkel suggests, “The best way for a vaccine to be less stressful is for the parent to be less stressed out in the office” because “a child, even a very young child, can sense anxiety.” If parents want reassurance that they’re making the right choice vaccinating their children, she suggests asking the provider if they had their children or grandchildren immunized and what their experience was like. The most important question to ask of the provider, however, is “when do I bring my child in for the immunization?” she says.