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Thursday August 18, 2016

"Spacing Out" Vaccines Doesn't Make Them Safer — Just the Opposite

Christmas

Most parents agree that vaccinations protect their children from potentially dangerous illness. They understand the science showing that immunization is generally safe and effective. Yet a significant number of those otherwise savvy parents fall prey to the vague notion that vaccines would be safer if "spaced apart" — despite evidence to the contrary.

A 2015 report in the journal Pediatrics found that 93% of pediatricians are asked by the parents of at least some of their patients about spreading vaccines out over a longer period of time. And most of the time, they agree to do so.

The idea was given a push by a couple of various Republican candidates for president during the primaries. “I’m in favor of vaccines,” Donald Trump said during a September 2015 debate, “[but] do them over a longer period of time, same amount, but just in little sections. I think you’re going to have — I think you’re going to see a big impact on autism.”

Fellow candidate Dr. Ben Carson corrected Trump—to some extent. “The fact of the matter is, we have extremely well-documented proof that there’s no autism associated with vaccinations,” the neurologist said. “But it is true that we are probably giving way too many in too short a period of time. And a lot of pediatricians now recognize that.”

Sorry, Dr. Carson, but not according to the Pediatrics article. Most doctors don't agree to the spaced-out vaccinations because they think it’s a good idea. Quite the contrary.

The current vaccine schedule for babies and young children has been thoroughly tested and is repeatedly reviewed for safety and effectiveness. Several times a year, the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices re-examines research done on vaccines included in the reccomended vaccination schedules and tweaks recommendations based on the latest evidence. Before a new vaccine is added to the schedule, significant research must be presented to show that it can be given safely at the same time as other vaccines in that specificed age range. 

By creating their own vaccine schedules, parents take a risk because these alternative timetables have not been tested for safety and effectiveness. We have no idea whether picking and choosing which and when vaccines are given increases the risk of side effects or decreases their effectiveness. What is known is that delaying vaccinations leaves children vulnerable to potentially serious diseases for a longer period of time — often when they are at an age of increased risk of serious complications from these diseases — and that’s not safe at all.

Even still, some parents are concerned that the number of vaccines given at one visit could overwhelm the immune system. But researchers have looked at that, too. 

According to a report by Live Science, “Immunologists at the University of California, San Diego,  looked into the number of immunological challenges a person can respond to at one time.” They considered all the compounds in vaccines, including bacterial and viral proteins, and concluded that young children could safely handle up to 100,000 vaccines at once, LiveScience reported. The recommended vaccination schedule isn't just a drop in the bucket in comparison, it's a drop in the ocean for the immune systems of even the youngest babies.

"To suggest that you make your own schedule is dangerous," Dr. Paul Offit, chief of the division of infectious diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, told Live Science. Another danger is that it can be too easy for a delayed vaccine to turn into a vaccine that is never administered at all.

So why do pediatricians give in? Often they try to talk parents out of it, the authors of the Pediatrics article found, but their efforts aren’t usually successful. In the end, they figure that at least they are getting the parents to vaccinate against some or all of the diseases eventually, and that if they push too hard, the parents will leave and perhaps never vaccinate at all.

During August, National Immunization Awareness Month, one important takeaway is that the recommended vaccination schedule is based on rigorous, continually reviewed science; spaced-out vaccine schedules are based on hunches that, if wrong, could be dangerous to children’s health.

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