Vaccines save lives. According to the World Health Organization, aside from clean water, the development of vaccines is the most influential public health intervention for improving the world’s health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention includes immunizations among the Ten Great Public Health Achievements in the 20th Century. It’s clear that diseases that once made children ill, and all-too-often took their lives, have been eliminated or greatly reduced thanks to the emergence of safe and effective vaccines.
“Vaccines are one of the most impactful public health successes of our time,” said Dr. Danielle Zerr, head of Infectious Disease at Seattle Children’s. “In the beginning of the 20th century, infectious diseases took an enormous toll on the population. Now, we can protect our children and the community with safe vaccines, and we’ve seen incredible benefits like the eradication of smallpox, the near elimination of polio and a substantial reduction in the rates of bacterial meningitis.”
Saving lives and costs
Vaccines work by supplementing a person’s immune system and helping their body recognize and fight off viruses and bacteria that cause disease. Modern sanitation, safe drinking water, nutritious foods and good hygiene also help prevent disease. However, without vaccines, even healthy people living in clean places and eating balanced diets can acquire potentially deadly diseases.
Currently recommended vaccines can protect babies, children and teens from 16 potentially serious diseases that can cause a variety of debilitating conditions including liver failure, paralysis, breathing problems, bloodstream infections, seizures, some cancers and brain damage, among others.
A study published in Pediatrics estimated that routine childhood immunizations given to all children born in the U.S. in 2009 would prevent about 42,000 early deaths and 20 million cases of disease over the lifetime of those children. Additionally, $13.5 billion in direct costs and $69 billion in societal costs would be saved.
“If you take these estimates and apply them to several years of births, the value of vaccines, both in lives and costs saved, is truly astounding,” said Zerr.
Vaccines are safe
Not only are vaccines effective, but they are incredibly safe. Before a vaccine is approved for use in doctors’ offices and clinics, it is studied extensively. Once a vaccine is approved for use, the national vaccine safety system continues to monitor for any adverse reactions or serious side effects.
Today, we know that serious side effects from recommended childhood vaccines are very rare. Some children may have minor reactions to vaccines, with the most common side effects being short-term soreness at the site of injection and a slight fever. Scientific evidence clearly tells us that a person’s risk of having a serious health problem from an immunization is much less than the risk that comes with getting the potentially deadly disease that a vaccine can prevent.
Vaccines create “community immunity”
Vaccines are vitally important in protecting not only an individual, but also the larger community. When the majority of people in an area are immunized, it creates a “community immunity” that helps to protect the vulnerable members of the community who do not have immunity or who have weakened immune systems, including infants, immunocompromised individuals and the elderly.
“It not only takes a village to raise a child, it takes an immunized village to protect all children and members of the community from vaccine-preventable disease,” said Zerr.
As an example, Zerr said that for highly contagious diseases such as measles, at least nine out of 10 people must have immunity to keep the disease from spreading. When “community immunity” does not exist, it can lead to deadly consequences.
“Due to some who have not been fully vaccinated on time, we’ve unfortunately seen a resurgence of once rare and potentially deadly diseases like measles occur throughout the country,” said Dr. Doug Opel, pediatrician and bioethicist at Seattle Children’s. “As a pediatrician, the most important conversations I’ve had with families throughout my career are centered on the incredible protection vaccines provide not only to their own children, but also the broader community.”
What parents can do
- Immunize your child on time. Talk with your child’s doctor if you have any concerns or questions.
- Make sure those around your child are immunized. Ask caregivers about their immunization status. Check with your child’s daycare or school to learn about immunization rates.
- Talk with others about the importance of vaccines as a way to promote health and wellness in your community.
The bottom line on vaccines
All childhood immunizations are safe, important and necessary. Seattle Children’s believes that all children should receive all immunizations on time, unless there are specific medical reasons not to. Anything less puts our children and community at risk.
“As clinicians, we advocate for all children to be vaccinated in order to work toward the day when we’re no longer faced with caring for children who are suffering from the effects of completely preventable diseases,” said Zerr.
Opel adds, “As pediatric providers, we share a common goal with parents: to do what is best for their child. Protecting a child from potentially life-threatening diseases with vaccines fits that goal.”