Ask parents what scares them most about vaccination shots. The number one answer is autism. Many people believe that the increased number of vaccines are to blame for the rise in kids with autism. The idea first made headlines in 1998, when Andrew Wakefield, M.D., a British gastroenterologist, published a study of 12 children in The Lancet that linked the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) combination vaccine with intestinal problems that he believed led to autism. The vaccine-autism hypothesis was solidly in the mainstream by the time actress Jenny McCarthy went public with her belief that vaccines caused her son's autism, describing in heartbreaking detail how "the soul left his eyes" on a 2007 segment of the The Oprah Show.
At least seven large studies in medical journals have found no association between the MMR vaccine and autism. That doesn't mean that vaccines aren't capable of causing adverse effects beyond a sore arm and a slight fever. Most doctors say that the odds of experiencing a vaccine-related injury are greatly outweighed by the dangers of catching a vaccine-preventable disease. Research has shown that kids are exposed to more aluminum in breast milk or infant formula than through vaccines.
"Vaccines protect babies' immature immune system," says Margaret Fisher, M.D., a pediatrician at The Children's Hospital at Monmouth Medical Center, in New Jersey, and chair of the AAP section on infectious diseases. "When you delay vaccines, you leave children unprotected against dangerous diseases at the time when they're most vulnerable." In 2008, for example, three of the five kids in Minnesota who developed invasive Hib disease (one of whom died) had parents who'd chosen to postpone vaccination. "People always ask me, 'Which shot can I skip?'" says Dr. Fisher. "Honestly, I can't think of one I'd wait on."
Getting vaccinated is more about protecting your entire community rather than just your child. Some children can't get certain vaccines because they are allergic to the ingredients. Some doctors have even refused to take on patients whose families don't plan to immunize. In the end, many doctors say that the strongest statement they can make in favor of vaccinating kids is to point to the family photos on their office walls.