Before she had children, Marcie was terrified by vaccines, including the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. At the time, she worked in early intervention, coordinating services for parents of special-needs preschoolers. “Many of them believed their kids got sick or showed signs of a developmental delay after being vaccinated,” she recalls. “It made perfect sense, and I had no reason to doubt their beliefs.”
Her fears solidified after reading anti-vaccine books, and she vowed to avoid vaccinating her own children. After her first son was born, however, Marcie and her husband agreed to compromise on his vaccines. They looked for a pediatrician who understood her fears and would help them devise a modified approach to vaccination, including a staggered MMR vaccine.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Family Physicians all recommend children receive the MMR vaccine at age 12-15 months, and again at 4-6 years.
The MMR vaccine is typically given as a single shot. But Marcie, her husband and her pediatrician agreed to separate the MMR vaccine into three components and immunize the couple’s two sons against measles first, then mumps, then rubella. (This separated version of the MMR vaccine is no longer commercially available in the United States.)
Fast forward to adolescence. Marcie’s older son was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, which meant he could no longer get a live vaccine. (A live vaccine contains a weakened virus that causes a harmless infection in the vaccinated person with very few, if any, symptoms. The person’s immune system fights the infection caused by these weakened viruses, and immunity develops which lasts throughout that person’s life.)
“If we hadn’t vaccinated our sons, we would be completely dependent on herd immunity. I’m so glad we vaccinated our boys,” she says.
What is herd immunity?
Herd immunity occurs when most members of a community are vaccinated (and protected) from a disease; the disease can’t catch hold and turn into an outbreak. A few individuals might contract measles, either because of a vaccine failure—which is extremely rare—or because the individual was not vaccinated. If most of the community (or herd) is vaccinated, the disease dies out. In contrast, in an unvaccinated community, the disease spreads, with potentially fatal consequences for unvaccinated children.
With a measles outbreak that began at Disneyland in California linked to more than 50 cases, many in unvaccinated individuals, Marcie realizes she and her husband made the right decision for their family.
On January 23, in response to the Disneyland outbreak, the AAP urged parents to vaccinate their children to protect them against measles, citing herd immunity and its importance for infants and children who can’t get the vaccine themselves.
“I see both side of the debate now,” Marcie says. “Try to find a way to balance your fears. Look for a pediatrician who will listen to you and support you, and work toward a trusting relationship. If you are struggling with the decision to vaccinate, think about the greater good. There are kids and adults who can’t get some vaccines. If we see a resurgence of disease, people may become seriously ill and even die. We have to possibly be just as afraid of the diseases are we are of the potential side effects of the vaccines.”
Learn more about measles.