A shot of confusion: Doctors, parents vexed that some choose not to vaccinate their kids

FARGO - Rachel Gillen has always vaccinated her kids. Even when the Fargo mom heard vaccines might cause autism (an assertion health experts say studies have shown is not true), she researched the issue, talked to her pediatrician, and says she f...

Dr. Clifford Mauriello
Dr. Clifford Mauriello, pediatric infectious disease physician at Sanford Health in Fargo. Submitted photo.

FARGO - Rachel Gillen has always vaccinated her kids.

Even when the Fargo mom heard vaccines might cause autism (an assertion health experts say studies have shown is not true), she researched the issue, talked to her pediatrician, and says she felt confident the vaccines would be a safe way of protecting her children from diseases.

But now that her 7-year-old son, Josiah, is in kidney failure and is immunosuppressed, he cannot receive certain vaccines, and Gillen says she has come to appreciate the importance of vaccinations even more.

"Before he was sick, I didn't understand the importance of herd immunity," she said. "As a parent of a sick child, we really depend on the immunizations of other people's children because other children being immunized is what helps keep my son healthy."

Vaccinations should be pediatricians' top priority in promoting good growth and development in their patients, says Dr. Clifford Mauriello, pediatric infectious disease physician at Sanford Health in Fargo.


"From the beginning of time to date there has been no medical intervention that has saved more lives and prevented more disability than vaccination," Mauriello said.

Yet the kindergarten immunization rates for some vaccines, including those for diseases like measles and pertussis are slightly declining in North Dakota. The state's Department of Health data shows that for the 2012-2013 school year - the most recent data available on the department's website - less than 89 percent of kindergarteners received the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and less than 90 percent received the diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTaP) vaccine.

The percentages for those vaccines were more than 92 percent for MMR and 93 percent for DTaP during the 2008-2009 school year.

While the vaccination rates have slightly declined, the exemption rates for philosophical reasons have slightly risen, state department of health data shows.

During the 2012-2013 school year, 1.42 percent of students were exempt from school immunizations due to philosophical reasons. That same year, 0.24 percent were exempt for religious reasons, 0.21 percent had a medical exemption and 2.95 percent did not have immunization records.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 175 people in the United States had measles as of Nov. 30, making 2013 the second highest year of reported cases since the highly contagious, acute viral illness that can lead to complications and death, was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000.

About a quarter of those people contracted measles in other countries then brought the disease to the United States and spread it to others, the CDC states.

"Measles used to be one of the most common diseases of childhood. It is probably one of the most contagious diseases on the planet," Mauriello said. "Babies particularly become very, very sick with measles, and many of them died. Many children in developing nations still die from measles every day."


One problem is some parents think immunization can lead to autism, Mauriello says, because of a scientific paper published in The Lancet medical journal in 1998 that has since been debunked. Though the study was retracted and deemed fraudulent, it still triggered international alarm about vaccines.

That alarm has been perpetuated, Mauriello says, by vocal people in the media, like actress Jenny McCarthy, who speak out publicly against vaccines, despite advocacy groups, like Autism Speaks, saying studies have not supported a link between vaccines and the increased prevalence of autism.

On the Autism Speaks blog, some parents blame vaccines, specifically the MMR shot, for their children's autism, saying they were developing normally until they received the shots and then all of a sudden they stopped talking, singing or making eye contact.

Mauriello says it just happens that the timing of when children receive some of their vaccines is also when doctors or parents might start to pick up on signs of autism in a child.

"What we've discovered is the autism rates are the same for people who are vaccinated and people who are not," he said.

For parents like Gillen and Katherine Altendorf of Moorhead, Minn., those fraudulent claims are especially frustrating.

Altendorf's son, who is now 22, is also immunocompromised. He has to take immunosuppressant medications due to a kidney transplant and cannot receive certain vaccinations, she said.

"If we don't vaccinate our kids, we're putting other people at risk who don't have that option of being vaccinated," she said. "If my kid got the measles, he could die."


Altendorf is also a special education teacher and says she's been to a lot of workshops and training that reiterate it's not vaccines causing autism.

There can be risks with vaccines. For the most part they're minor, like a sore arm or low-grade fever, but like any medicine, vaccines could cause a serious reaction, the CDC states, adding that the risk of a vaccine causing serious harm, or death, is extremely small.

Mauriello also warns that the diseases children are vaccinated against can cause death and permanent brain damage.

"You've got to understand that the decision not to immunize a child is the decision to leave that child at risk for death and disability," he said.

Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is becoming a bigger problem, Mauriello said.

Between 10,000 and 40,000 cases are reported each year, the CDC states. The highly contagious respiratory infection resembles an ordinary cold, but can turn more serious, and Mauriello says it can be deadly for infants.

Because babies younger than 2 months old cannot be vaccinated against the disease and are not fully protected until they get all of the recommended doses, Mauriello says it's especially important that everyone with which the baby comes in contact be vaccinated.

"We've come a long way in this country. We were plagued by these diseases," Mauriello said. "I think it would be a shame for a small minority to undo all the gains we've made in public health in this country by convincing folks it's not necessary to get vaccines or that vaccines are dangerous when we have very strong evidence to say the opposite is the case."


Josiah Gillen, 7, is immunosuppressed
Josiah Gillen, 7, is immunosuppressed and cannot receive certain vaccines. His mom, Rachel Gillen says she depends on other children being immunized to help keep her son healthy.

What To Read Next
Get Local