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Health benefit or unnecessary risk? Doctors say soon-to-be 12 shots less dangerous than disease By Kelley Vick and Kimberly Straub

photos courtesy of the Chicago Department of Public Health  

Children in Illinois get 11 shots under current pediatric vaccination requirements. And public health officials are on the verge of adding one more for babies-one that may not even work.

Vaccinations already are controversial in some circles, fueled by parents who believe the shots harm rather than help their child. Now, public health officials are about to require that babies age 6 to 23 months who go to daycare get a flu shot. The change is coming even though this year's vaccine had no effect on the strain of flu that caused most of the illness and killed two Cook County children this season.

According Karen McMahon, immuniaztion section chief at the Illinois Department of Public Health, the flu strain that went around this season was a variation on the type A virus in the flu vaccine. That means the vaccine was ineffective against the strain, which "was especially risky for younger children," she says.

By the end of April, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) will officially recommend that children 6 to 23 months be vaccinated against the flu. Currently, a flu shot is only encouraged. But when it renews its pediatric immunization schedule in July, the CDC will include the flu vaccine as a 12th vaccine required of babies in daycare and recommended for all infants and toddlers.

Most doctors and policymakers say vaccinations are a public health necessity. But Sherry Wied, secretary for the Illinois Vaccine Awareness Coalition, is skeptical and her reasons are personal.

Six years ago, Wied's son, then 10, was given a hepatitis B shot. Not long after, he was diagnosed with central nervous system damage. "I've got four doctors who put it in writing that this was caused by the vaccine," she says.

"Even I, as a parent, worry about these things, but we've forgotten what it's like to get polio," says Dr. Jeff Mjaanes, a Rush University Medical Center pediatrician. "When you compare [the side effects from the vaccines] to the diseases, the vaccines are extremely safe."

Possible complications from chickenpox are hepatitis, encephalitis, pneumonia, even flesh-eating bacteria, Mjaanes says. "The point of vaccination is really to prevent the horrible complications of chickenpox. Kids can lose limbs. ...Kids can die."

Critics contend harmful ingredients and combinations of mandated vaccines are linked to an increase in autism and other health problems in Illinois. However, no studies, as yet, have conclusively shown a link.

Barbara Lowe Fischer, president of the National Vaccine Information Center, says parents should look at all information about benefits and risks before immunizing their children. "People ask which vaccines are more risky; it depends on the child," she says. "There needs to be studies done to find out who, genetically, may be at risk." The CDC maintains that vaccinations are a necessary risk. "The ACIP [Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices] and the CDC recommend that children have vaccinations before age 2," says Curtis Allen, CDC spokesperson. "Our recommendation is not to wait until age 5." He says diseases such as whooping cough can be especially harmful in young children.

That is convincing enough for Sue Merten, a mother of four. Merten says that even though her oldest son, now 18, developed "full-blown measles" after having the measles vaccine, she still had no reservations about giving the MMR shot to her other three children.

"I just know how important that is," she says. "Any of those diseases could be devastating."

Vaccine varieties The following are vaccinations currently required before a child may attend school in Illinois. All are given in the form of a shot:

Mumps, measles, rubella (MMR) Although it is still possible in Illinois to be vaccinated for measles, mumps and rubella separately, the Illinois Department of Public Health recommends taking all three together in the MMR vaccine when the child is 12-18 months. Karen McMahon, chief of the department's immunization section, says this is more cost effective and easier to get.

Children who take the MMR vaccine usually require a second dose of measles vaccine when the child is 4-6 years old, but the second dose can be administered as early as four weeks after the first dose is given.

McMahon says extra doses of mumps and rubella vaccines are not unhealthy. "There's been no science to show that you're being over-immunized," she says. "If anything, you're getting a booster of those other two."

Typical side effects include fever or a mild rash.

Diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus (DPaT) Four doses are required. The first three doses must be given at least four weeks apart, beginning as early as 2 months. The fourth and final dose is a booster and should be given on or after the child's fourth birthday and at least six months after the third dose.

Pertussis is the proper name for what is more commonly known as whooping cough. Tetanus and diphtheria boosters are recommended every 10 years.

Some children develop fever, redness, soreness or swelling where the shot was given.

Polio (IPV) The standard form of polio vaccine in the United States is IPV, or inactivated polio vaccine. Dr. Jeff Mjaanes, a pediatrician at Rush University Medical Center, says the injected vaccine is safer than the old oral vaccine and side effects are low. "I've never even seen a fever," he says.

The CDC says the vaccine, administered as a series of four shots, has never been known to cause any serious problems. The first shot is given at 2 months, the second at 4 months, the third between 6 and 18 months and the fourth between 4 and 6 years.

Varicella This is the vaccine against chickenpox. It is given in only one dose, after the child's first birthday. People 13 or older require two doses given at least four weeks apart.

Typical side effects include redness or swelling near shot area. Some people may develop a fever.

Hepatitis B Three doses are required before entering the fifth grade. The first two doses should be given at least four weeks apart. The second and third dose should be given two months apart.

Side effects include redness or swelling around area where shot was given.


Resources CDC National Immunization Program

American Academy of Pediatrics

Illinois Immunization Program

Immunization Action Coalition

Every Child by Two

National Vaccine Information Center

Illinois Vaccine Awareness Coalition



Kelley Vick and Kimberly Straub are students at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Vick works at the Medill News Service. Straub is a Chicago Parent intern.


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