It can be hard for parents to know what to do when they hear people talk about following a delayed or alternative schedule for vaccinating their babies. It can even become an emotional hot button issue. Parents will hear many opinions from friends, family and self-proclaimed internet ‘experts’ in addition to your doctor’s recommendations.
But really, this shouldn’t be an emotional decision. It’s a decision that should be based on sound and accurate information about the vaccines and the vaccine schedule that doctors follow, which specifies the recommended number and timing of shots.
In my last post, I invited parents to move beyond emotion only and examine the science behind their doctors’ recommendations. In this post, I will walk you through answers from science to common questions about vaccines and the vaccine schedule.
Here you will find information you need to consider before abandoning decades of scientific research to follow a delayed or alternative schedule not supported by science. I want vaccine hesitant parents to be able to make a thoughtful, confident decision rather than reacting with fear to horror stories retold by people with an agenda.
Q: Why do babies get so many shots all at once?
A: Simply to decrease pain. Studies have shown that babies experience the same amount of stress whether they get one shot or three shots. Giving a baby one shot instead of 3 makes parents feel better but it certainly doesn’t decrease a baby’s distress. They will have to come back to get poked on 3 different days, tripling the amount of stress and trauma. It’s much kinder to get it all done at once.
Q: How do these shots work?
A: To understand how shots work, you need to know what an antigen is- it is the molecular “label” the immune system uses to identify a foreign invader it has fought off in the past. It is the site on the invader an antibody binds to in order to kick off the body’s defense. It’s like a key that unlocks the specific defense needed to defeat that illness.
Most shots work by introducing to the immune system one or a few of these antigens. Each antigen is only a piece of a virus or bacteria so it can’t cause the illness. (A few shots work by introducing an inactivated, weak form of the virus that can’t cause the illness either and is easy for the immune system to fight off.)
In either case, the body responds by producing the exact antibody that matches the full intact virus or bacteria. That antibody will then be circulating in the bloodstream from that point onward, ready to attack as soon as that invader is encountered within the body. This provides the body with a “memory” of how to fight off an illness it has never had.
It takes the body two to four weeks to create an antibody response, which is too long to wait when a real virus or bacteria infects the body. That’s why shots are given ahead of time, so the body is ready without delay when the defense is needed. To read more on how vaccines work click here.
Q: Doesn’t it overwhelm the immune system to get so many shots at once?
A: To respond to a full set of shots, a baby only uses an estimated 0.1% of their immune system. What are they doing with the other 99.9%? Responding to all the germs on their pacifiers, skin, their mom’s skin, their blankets, their food, etc. There are antigens everywhere and the human body is capable of responding to literally tens of thousands of them every day simultaneously. The handful of antigens in one set of shots is just a drop in the ocean rather than a serious threat to the immune system.
Your baby’s immune system has incredible potential, but it’s still very young and inexperienced. Shots train the baby’s natural immune defenses to be ready to fight off potentially life-threatening infections faster. To see an infographic explaining how vaccines strengthen the immune system, click here.
Q: Why are there so many shots on the immunization schedule? Why do they keep adding shots to it?
Once we figured out how to train the immune system to fight off specific dangerous germs, we wanted to start protecting babies from as many deadly infections as possible. We can now protect babies and children from 16 different infectious diseases. To read more about each of them click here.
We are actually vaccinating less than we did 30 years ago. Even though more shots have been added to the schedule, kids today are getting fewer total number of antigens in today’s shot schedule than they did in the past. Over time, scientists have identified which antigens produce stronger antibodies and therefore can include fewer antigens in each vaccine, so that kids today are getting a mere tenth of the “challenge” to their immune systems compared to what their parents did in 1980: around 3,000 antigens then, only around 300 now. We are training the immune system to work smarter, not harder.
Q: Why do they have to get shots so young?
A: Young babies need protection the most when their immune system is the least experienced. A virus or bacteria that causes only a pesky illness in a toddler, child or adult can be a devastating infection in a young baby.
Some examples: Haemophilus influenzae or pneumococcus pneumoniae can cause overwhelming sepsis, which is a blood infection, or meningitis, which is an infection of the fluid around the brain and spine. These infections can quickly (as in, within hours) progress to death or cause permanent neurological deficits in survivors. Whooping cough causes apnea in babies, making them cough so hard they stop breathing and then suffocate. Rotavirus causes severe frequent diarrhea and vomiting which can lead to dehydration and shock. Hepatitis B picked up from the birth canal causes liver infection and cancer.
Babies are most vulnerable to these diseases when they are young. To read more about these diseases, click here.
Plus, it is so much easier to get these shots done when they are babies than when they start school. Trust me, I’ve listened to many kindergartners cry and scream in my office because their parents thought they were doing them a favor by skipping their baby shots. They cry a lot less and forgive a lot faster when they are babies and don’t know what’s going on. They will feel better about going to the doctor when they are older.
Q: Who makes the vaccine schedule, anyway? How do they know vaccines are safe?
A: A panel of vaccine and infectious disease scientists and pediatricians make up the Advisory Committee for Immunization Practices (ACIP). They, as a requirement, cannot be employed by or have any financial relationship with vaccine manufacturers. They critically evaluate the studies on vaccines and make final recommendations about which, when and how many shots kids should get. This constitutes the vaccine schedule we follow.
Decisions they make are based on scientific studies, not input from vaccine developers or manufacturers. Shots are placed on the vaccine schedule only when they have been shown to be safe and effective at a certain age and safe along with the other shots given at that age.
But it doesn’t stop there. Data is constantly being collected on vaccine safety and the ACIP regularly reviews it long after a vaccine is added to the schedule. There is a higher level of scrutiny for vaccine safety than there is for most prescription and over the counter medicines, and way more than herbal remedies and nutritional supplements.
Q: What about following an alternative schedule? Can’t I give my kid protection, just on a different timeframe?
A: Some doctors have promoted their own vaccine schedules, claiming they are better than the official one. However, these alternative schedules are just the result of one individual’s opinion, not scientific evidence.
For example, Dr. Andrew Wakefield (click to read more) advocated for separating the measles, mumps and rubella components of the MMR vaccine because he claimed the combination could cause autism. However, this was based on his own fraudulent and unethical research that was found to contain fabricated data when it was investigated due to it being secretly funded by malpractice lawyers.
On-time vaccination of babies does not harm neuro-psychological outcomes. Dozens of studies involving over a million kids have shown no higher rates of autism in kids that were vaccinated compared to kids that weren’t. (Click here to read a summary of some of them). The Institute of Medicine, the Center for Disease Control, American Academy of Pediatrics, and American Academy of Family Practice have all concluded that vaccines do not cause autism.
Dr. Bob Sears has also promoted an alternative schedule. However, Dr. Sears himself admits that his schedule is not based on any science at all- his spacing and timing of shots is purely arbitrary. Your baby’s health is not something you should allow someone to just “guess” on. Follow good science instead. Without studies, there is no proof that his alternative schedule is as effective or even as safe as the standard schedule. Worse yet, babies on Dr. Sears’ schedule experience more pain due to far more injections, and parents have to follow a far more complicated schedule with more office visits.
To read more about the many problems with Dr. Bob’s schedule click here.
In summary, the childhood vaccination schedule we follow is the product of good scientific research. It has saved more lives, prevented more illnesses and chronic disabilities and missed days of work and school, and increased quality of life for more children and adults than any other preventive health measure. Its success is the very reason the vaccine schedule is so easily taken for granted.
Despite what a growing (but still small) counter-culture of parents want you to believe, there is no benefit to delaying or spacing out vaccines. It’s at best more painful, and at worst outright harmful, to delay or space out vaccines, denying protection to babies when they need it most.
Will your baby benefit from modern medicine’s most successful preventative measure?