Do vaccines work?
Yes. Vaccination is one of the greatest achievements of medicine and has spared millions of people the effects of devastating diseases.
Before vaccines became widely used, infectious diseases killed thousands of children and adults each year in the United States:
As a result of the high level of immunization in the United States these diseases have declined to near zero. For example, only 81 cases of serious Hib disease were reported and confirmed in 1997.(3) In addition, due to vaccination smallpox has been eradicated, polio has been eliminated, and only 1 case of diphtheria, 86 cases of measles, 238 cases of rubella, and 8 cases of congenital rubella syndrome were reported in 1999.(2)
Is it better to be naturally infected rather than vaccinated?
No. Diseases cause suffering and, in some cases, permanent disability or death. Vaccines allow a person to be protected from the disease without experiencing the serious adverse effects of that illness.
Because of better hygiene and sanitation, hadn't diseases already begun to disappear before vaccines were introduced?
No, they had not begun to disappear. In the 20th century, infectious diseases began to be better controlled because of improvements in hygiene and sanitation (clean water and pest control). However, the incidence of vaccine-preventable diseases only began to drop dramatically after the vaccines for those diseases were licensed and began to be used in large numbers of children.
During an outbreak, aren't the majority of people who catch a disease those who have been vaccinated?
Although vaccines have very high effectiveness rates, they are not completely effective for 100% of the people who receive them. For example, a full series of measles vaccine will protect 99 of 100 children from measles, and polio vaccine will protect 99 of 100 children from polio.(2) This means that when there is a disease outbreak, the very small number of people for whom the vaccine did not work may still be able to catch the disease. Because almost all of our children are immunized, and only few are not, it can be the case that during an epidemic the majority of cases occur among children who were immunized. However, the fact remains that those who have not received the vaccine are much more likely to catch the disease.
If vaccine-preventable diseases have been virtually eliminated from the United States, why do American children need to be vaccinated?
Although many of these diseases have the potential to be eliminated, outbreaks of diphtheria, measles, and other vaccine-preventable diseases still occur.
1. Bisgard KM, Kao A, Leake J, et al. Haemophilus influenzae invasive disease in the United States, 1994-1995: Near disappearance of a vaccine-preventable childhood disease. Emerging Infectious Diseases 1998;4(2):229-237.
2. Atkinson W, Wolfe C, Humiston S, Nelson R, eds. Epidemiology and Prevention of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases. (The Pink Book) 6th ed. Atlanta: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 2000.
5. Vitek CR, Aduddell M, Brinton MJ, Hoffman RE, Redd SC. Increased protections during a measles outbreak of children previously vaccinated with a second dose of measles-mumps-rubella vaccine. Pediatric Infectious Diseases Journal 1999;18:620-623.
6. Salmon DA, Haber M, Gangarosa E, Phillips L, Smith NJ, and Chen RT. Health consequences of religious and philosophical exemptions from immunization laws. JAMA 1999;282(1):47-53.
7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Public-sector vaccination efforts in response to the resurgence of measles among preschool-aged children--United States, 1989-1991. MMWR 1992;41:522-525.
Recommended Books and Websites on this Topic
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