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Measles and vaccines: Have the conversation with your doctor



In 1998, Andrew Wakefield published a research paper in the British medical journal The Lancet suggesting that autism spectrum disorders were in some way linked to the combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. Since then, Wakefield has been barred from practicing medicine, The Lancet retracted the article and a series of other studies disproved any connection between autism and vaccines. Still, a small fraction of parents continue to worry about the risks of vaccination.

Of the dozens of people recently infected with measles at Disneyland, most were not vaccinated. Dr. Doug Opel, a pediatrician and bioethicist at Seattle Children’s Hospital, realized early in his career that doctors needed to find better ways to talk to parents about immunizing their children. Provider parent communication about childhood immunizations is now part of his research. “Lots of parents come into my office who have heard about it and want to talk about it,” Opel said. “It requires a conversation.”

Opel wants to have that conversation. Parents with concerns about vaccines are just trying to do the best thing for their children, he said. “There’s nothing else we ask parents to do like vaccinations,” he said. “It’s not unreasonable to ask what might be in them. I’m supportive of these questions, and it’s our obligation to try and answer them satisfactorily.” What he tells parents is that no vaccine is 100 percent effective or 100 percent safe, but that vaccines — especially the MMR vaccine — are overwhelmingly effective and safe.

The overwhelming scientific consensus, he said, is that there is no evidence the MMR vaccine causes autism, and the vaccine’s benefits far outweigh its risks. Those risks include mild fever, rash or swollen glands. Very rarely, a child can experience a severe allergic reaction to the vaccine. Measles is a highly contagious disease. It’s possible to catch measles just by being in a room where a person with measles has been, up to two hours after that person is gone. Measles can cause severe illness, with rash, fever, cough and eye irritation, and rarely brain damage or death. It’s especially dangerous for babies and young children.

Measles was declared eliminated from the U.S. in 2000, but it’s back. It’s not that more people aren’t vaccinating, it’s that the people who don’t vaccinate tend to live in the same area, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control. In 2014, there was a spike in cases nationwide, probably brought here by unvaccinated travelers coming into the country from the Philippines, according to the CDC. In the three largest outbreaks last year, transmission occurred “after introduction of measles into communities with pockets of persons who were unvaccinated because of philosophical or religious beliefs.” 

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