Ask the Doctors

Dear Doctor: My son and his wife have a 13-month-old son, born at home, whom they refuse to have vaccinated. In fact, the only time he's seen a doctor was a month ago when he had a bad cold. How can I convince them of the merits of vaccination?

Dear Reader: Our human lives have diverged significantly from that of our ancestors, meaning everyday existence is much more controlled and mechanized than ever before. It is thus understandable to want to live and raise one's children in a more "natural" way -- and to have control over our lives when so much is governed by the society around us. This conflict is evidenced by many parents' reaction to vaccine guidelines for children.

Your son and daughter-in-law may feel that these vaccines are harmful and unnecessary. But, if you ask generations who saw the ravages of polio or the infant deaths from pertussis, there would be no question as to the benefits of vaccines. Consider:

Polio: Prior to the development of a vaccine, polio led to thousands of deaths and even more cases of paralysis in this country alone. The illness has no cure, so the best option is to be vaccinated.

Measles: Before there was a vaccine, more than 90 percent of children acquired measles by the age of 15. In the decade prior to 1967, when the vaccination became widespread, 48,000 children were hospitalized for measles each year; 1,000 developed permanent brain damage; and 500 died. Since the vaccine, the number of measles cases has dropped 99 percent.

Mumps: Prior to routine vaccination in the late 1960s, this was a very common illness, affecting about 186,000 children per year. For most children, it was mild, but if the virus invaded the brain, children could develop irreversible hearing loss. Further, in males, if the virus affected both testes, chronic sterility ensued. Routine vaccination has reduced the incidence of the disease by, again, 99 percent.

Rubella (German measles): Prior to widespread vaccination against rubella, a disease transmitted from pregnant woman to fetus, an epidemic in the early to mid-1960s caused 2,100 deaths in utero; 11,250 spontaneous abortions; and more than 20,000 babies born with a syndrome that leads to hearing loss, heart disease, vision loss, liver dysfunction and developmental delays.

Pertussis: This disease, known as whooping cough, was also devastating, with a high mortality rate.

That's not to say all vaccines are perfect. Some can cause Guillain-Barre syndrome, which can have devastating neurologic consequences. They can also lead to inflammatory reactions such as hives and breathing problems. But these side effects are very rare -- and are significantly dwarfed by the benefits of vaccination to the individual and to the general population. There is no evidence that vaccines lead to autism, as many people believe.

Because vaccination has largely eradicated many of the above diseases, an unvaccinated child may have a lower likelihood of getting the illnesses. But the more people refuse vaccination, the greater the risk to individuals and the general public.

I understand that it's difficult for you, knowing that your grandson isn't vaccinated. All you can do is to provide your son and daughter-in-law with the evidence of the benefits of vaccination. It's up to them to make the decision.

(Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o Media Relations, UCLA Health, 924 Westwood Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA, 90095. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)

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