The recent measles outbreak has generated a lot of conversation about whether or not parents should have the right to forego vaccines for their children. The debate has been one of personal rights to choose versus allowing an erosion of herd immunity.
Herd immunity is the principle that once enough people in a community are immunized, even those living in those communities who have not been immunized are less likely to get a disease.
Because more people are protected from the disease, the community will enjoy a lower number of people susceptible to the disease and less opportunity for those viruses and bacteria to move through the community. Herd immunity is especially important for those who cannot receive vaccines, such as infants too young to receive vaccines, those undergoing chemotherapy and immune-compromised individuals.
For parents of young children, this discourse can be confusing — and even frightening. For this reason, we thought it would be useful to describe some important terms to help parents wade through these sometimes troubling waters:
Requirements — These are laws made by states detailing which vaccines children need in order to start school. These laws are often made based on political and economic factors and vary from state to state.
Exemptions — Three types of exemptions are recognized. Medical exemptions are granted in situations in which getting a vaccine would be dangerous for the recipient’s health, such as in the case of previous severe reactions or because of pre-existing health conditions or allergies to vaccine components. The two other types of exemptions are nonmedical and can vary widely from state to state. Religious exemptions are offered in the majority of states, while some also have personal belief/philosophical exemptions. The latter means parents can choose not to give their children state-required vaccines because it goes against their personal, non-secular beliefs. The recent measles outbreak has led many state lawmakers to reconsider these choices based on personal beliefs (see more on state vaccine requirements and laws in “Did You Know?” section of this newsletter).
Recommendations — Outlined on the vaccine schedule, recommendations are determined by committees of experts who review the data and determine what is best for the health of this country’s citizens. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Academy of Family Physicians all work together to inform immunization schedule decisions. Recommendations take into account whether the vaccine works and is safe as well as who is most at risk of suffering the disease.
For parents, the most important of these three when deciding about vaccines should be recommendations because they are based on risks and benefits and may include vaccines not required by state lawmakers for entry to school.
While it’s helpful to be aware of your state vaccine requirements and exemption policies when deciding how best to protect your family, take time to find out which vaccines are recommended on the official immunization schedule.