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The Vaccine Debate

The Vaccine Debate

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Updated on Sep 28, 2009

Childhood immunizations have been hailed as one of the most significant public health advances in medical history. Thanks to vaccines, most children and teens today may never even have heard of, let alone experienced, such afflictions of earlier generations as polio, smallpox, measles and mumps.

While the general consensus is that vaccines are here to stay, critics of childhood vaccination say there’s a hidden side of the common practice that might make parents think twice before letting a doctor inject their child. What are the issues driving the vaccine debate, and what do parents need to know before deciding for themselves whether vaccines hurt or help?

Background

Vaccines work by introducing a weakened or deactivated form of a disease into the body. The immune system then recognizes and destroys the foreign agent, and “remembers” it so that if that the person is exposed to that disease again, the immune system can neutralize the threat before it takes hold.

Because of high vaccination rates in the United States and growing rates worldwide, incidence of such vaccine-preventable diseases as measles, mumps, and polio have decreased significantly over the last century. Worldwide measles deaths alone decreased 74% from 2000 to 2007. This is due to the concept of “herd immunity,” which is based on the idea that when a large percentage of a given population is immune to a disease, the non-immune individuals are also protected.

An increase in the number of measles outbreaks is the United States has made vaccination a hot topic among parents, public policy experts, and medical professionals. Because measles is highly contagious and can linger in the air for up to 2 hours, it can spread through schools and health care settings like wildfire, often threatening those most at risk, such as pregnant women, babies, and those with weakened immune systems due to diseases like AIDS or cancer.

Controversy

Resistance to the idea of vaccination is as old as the invention of vaccines themselves, with disputes ranging from the effectiveness and safety of vaccines to the threat to civil liberty that compulsory vaccination campaigns could pose.

Safety

Fear among the general public over the safety of immunization has formed the backbone of the anti-vaccine movement, which offers a host of anecdotal evidence to back up claims of damage due to vaccination. In the 1970’s and 80’s, several cases of brain injury and seizures were linked to the pertussis (whooping cough) portion of the DPT vaccine, prompting a legal backlash that threatened to put vaccine manufacturers out of business.

As a result, the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act (NCVIA) was passed in 1986, establishing a federal “no-fault” system to compensate victims of injury caused by vaccines, which include allergic reactions (anaphylaxis and anaphylactic shock), brain injury (encephalopathy), and seizures and convulsions. The pertussis vaccine has since been modified to make it safer, but the older strain is still administered in developing countries, as it is cheaper to produce.

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