With the measles virus–and the anti-vaccine movement–making headlines this spring, families have more questions than ever about immunizations and the resurgence of communicable diseases. Parents want to know if their children are safe, given the return of a dangerous virus in several U.S. communities. While recent trends might be concerning, we continue to emphasize that keeping up with your children’s vaccine schedule is the best way to protect them from illness.
Measles in America: Is There Cause for Concern?
In the first six months of 2019, the United States saw more than 1000 cases of measles, the highest number since 1994, according to the Centers for Disease Control. This year’s outbreak has touched 28 states and included an infected child who passed through Dulles Airport in June. Measles is a dangerous, highly contagious and sometimes deadly disease, so there is cause for concern about the national trend. However, most of the large scale outbreaks in the U.S. occur in close-knit communities with low vaccination rates. Fortunately, Virginia has a relatively high vaccination rate, so our community has a solid level of protection. At our practice, we encourage families to approach the issue armed with good information rather than fear.
How do Vaccines Work? Are They Safe?
Vaccines work by introducing a dead or weakened strain of the virus or bacteria that causes disease into the body. This activates your body’s amazing immune system so that you’re protected from the disease without having to go through the illness. The miracle of vaccines has saved millions of lives for decades.
The CDC has produced numerous studies showing that vaccines are safe. Unfortunately, the lifesaving Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine was the subject of a now-debunked 1998 article alleging a link between that vaccine and Autism Spectrum Disorder. The misinformation took hold and led many parents to question the safety of immunizations in general and the MMR vaccine in particular. Parents in certain communities declined to vaccinate at dangerously high levels, and the devastating effects are being seen in the resurgence of the measles virus. The upside of the headlines is that they have been a wake-up call in many communities: we can no longer rely on the immunity of others to keep our children safe. Vaccines protect best when they have critical mass, creating what’s known as “herd immunity.”
Is The Measles Vaccine Enough to Protect My Child?
Making sure that your child is vaccinated on the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommended schedule is the best way to prevent your child from getting measles and numerous other dangerous and deadly illnesses. But recent headlines naturally have parents wondering if their vaccinated children are safe.
A vast majority of cases in recent measles outbreaks occurred in unvaccinated individuals. The good news is that most individuals who have been vaccinated, even young children who have only had a single dose of the two-dose MMR vaccine are protected. CDC statistics show that one dose is 93 percent effective, and two doses are 97 percent effective against measles. So the likelihood of getting measles after being vaccinated, even if you are exposed to the virus, is very small. For the small number of people who are not protected by the vaccine, symptoms are usually milder, and they are less likely to transmit the disease to others, according to the CDC.
When Can My Child Get the Measles Vaccine?
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends getting the first dose of the MMR vaccine at 12 to 15 months and the second dose at 4 to 6 years under normal circumstances. But infants as young as 6 months can get the first dose of the vaccine before international travel or if they are part of a community that is experiencing a widespread outbreak. Since many measles cases are contracted while traveling abroad, families can also move up the timing of their second MMR immunization to provide extra protection for young children if they will be out of the country. In our region, measles risk is low, so the AAP schedule is still recommended unless your family is traveling outside the U.S.
How Can Parents Protect Infants Too Young to be Vaccinated?
Virginia’s 98 percent MMR vaccination rate goes a long way toward protecting the most vulnerable in our community, including infants too young to be vaccinated and others whose medical history does not allow them to get live vaccines. Since the MMR vaccine is not effective in babies younger than 6 months, the American Academy of Pediatrics offers some tips to keep the youngest children healthy, especially in cases where outbreaks have occurred:
Parents and caregivers should make sure they wash their hands regularly. Hand washing is still one of the best ways to prevent the spread of disease.
Avoid crowds, other children and people with cold symptoms with your infant.
Breastfeed your baby. This transmits important antibodies from your own immune system to your baby.
How Can My Pediatrician Help Protect My Child?
Pediatricians are often the first point of contact for families who have concerns about vaccines. Part of our job is to provide information about the benefits of immunization in a respectful way when parents have questions or concerns. At Loudoun Pediatric Associates, we continue to recommend the American Academy of Pediatrics vaccination schedule. Now more than ever, it’s clear that maintaining high rates of vaccination is the best way to protect public health. We believe that positive reinforcement about the benefits of routine immunizations from the public health community, practices like ours and parents like you is the best way to keep our children safe.