Childhood vaccines: Tough questions, straight answers
Do vaccines cause autism? Is it OK to skip certain vaccines? Get the facts on these and other common questions.By Mayo Clinic Staff
Childhood vaccines protect children from a variety of serious or potentially fatal diseases, including diphtheria, measles, mumps, rubella, polio, tetanus, whooping cough (pertussis) and others. If these diseases seem uncommon — or even unheard of — it's usually because these vaccines are doing their job.
Still, you might wonder about the benefits and risks of childhood vaccines. Here are straight answers to common questions about childhood vaccines.
Is natural immunity better than vaccination?
A natural infection might provide better immunity than vaccination — but there are serious risks. For example, a natural chickenpox (varicella) infection could lead to pneumonia. A natural polio infection could cause permanent paralysis. A natural mumps infection could lead to deafness. A natural Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) infection could result in permanent brain damage or even death. Vaccination can help prevent these diseases and their potentially serious complications.
Do vaccines cause autism?
Vaccines do not cause autism. Despite much controversy on the topic, researchers haven't found a connection between autism and childhood vaccines. In fact, the original study that ignited the debate years ago has been retracted.
Are vaccine side effects dangerous?
Any vaccine can cause side effects. Usually, these side effects are minor — a low-grade fever, fussiness and soreness at the injection site. Some vaccines cause a temporary headache, fatigue or loss of appetite. Rarely, a child might experience a severe allergic reaction or a neurological side effect, such as a seizure. Although these rare side effects are a concern, the risk of a vaccine causing serious harm or death is extremely small. The benefits of getting a vaccine are much greater than the possible side effects for almost all children.
Of course, vaccines aren't given to children who have known allergies to specific vaccine components. Likewise, if your child develops a life-threatening reaction to a particular vaccine, further doses of that vaccine won't be given.
Why are vaccines given so early?
The diseases that childhood vaccines are meant to prevent are most likely to occur when a child is very young and the risk of complications is greatest. That makes early vaccination — sometimes beginning shortly after birth — essential. If you postpone vaccines until a child is older, it might be too late.
Is it OK to pick and choose vaccines?
In general, skipping vaccines isn't a good idea. This can leave your child vulnerable to potentially serious diseases that could otherwise be avoided. And consider this: For some children — including those who can't receive certain vaccines for medical reasons (such as cancer therapy) — the only protection from vaccine-preventable diseases is the immunity of the people around them. If immunization rates drop, vaccine-preventable diseases might once again become common threats.
If you have reservations about particular vaccines, discuss your concerns with your child's doctor. If your child falls behind the standard vaccines schedule, ask the doctor about catch-up immunizations.
Mayo Clinic Minute: Why and when children should be vaccinated
Elizabeth Cozine, M.D.: Vaccination prevents a child from getting an illness. It also prevents them from spreading an illness.
Jason Howland: Dr. Elizabeth Cozine, a Mayo Clinic family physician, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a standard immunization schedule for school-age children that begins with ages 4 to 6.
Dr. Cozine:…which we think of as kindergarten shots. So that's measles, mumps, rubella and varicella.
Jason Howland: She says the next set of routine immunizations is at age 11…
Dr. Cozine:…which is tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis, and the meningococcal immunization.
Jason Howland: It's also recommended every child get an annual flu shot. And HPV vaccination, which prevents cancer, can start as early as age 9. Dr. Cozine says it's important to educate families on the importance of childhood vaccinations. She likens it to seat belt safety.
Dr. Cozine: Immunizations are no different. If we have opportunities to protect our children against serious illness and potentially even death, even if the risk of that illness or the risk of death from that illness is really quite low, I'm all for it.
Jason Howland: For the Mayo Clinic News Network, I'm Jason Howland.
April 22, 2021
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See more In-depth
- Making the vaccine decision. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/parents/vaccine-decision/index.html. Accessed Feb. 28, 2019.
- Infants and children birth through age 6. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://www.vaccines.gov/who_and_when/infants_to_teens/child/index.html. Accessed Feb. 28, 2019.
- Drutz J, et al. Autism spectrum disorder and chronic disease: No evidence for vaccines or thimerosal as a contributing factor. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. Accessed Feb. 28, 2019.
- Drutz J, et al. Standard immunizations for children and adolescents: Overview. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. Accessed Feb. 28, 2019.
- Your child's first vaccines. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/hcp/vis/vis-statements/multi.html. Accessed Mar. 6, 2019.