Vaccinations can cause minor side effects including redness at the injection site and sometimes mild fever, but medical experts say serious complications are rare and much less dangerous than the diseases that vaccines prevent. Damian Dovarganes AP
Vaccinations can cause minor side effects including redness at the injection site and sometimes mild fever, but medical experts say serious complications are rare and much less dangerous than the diseases that vaccines prevent. Damian Dovarganes AP

Karen Garloch

Vaccines are safe, but there are rare, unexpected risks

By Karen Garloch

kgarloch@charlotteobserver.com

February 28, 2015 04:53 PM

UPDATED March 01, 2015 09:16 AM

There’s no doubt that childhood vaccines are generally safe and highly recommended by public health officials.

They have virtually rid this country of certain infectious diseases, such as measles, that used to be prevalent and sometimes deadly.

As doctors say, the benefits of vaccines far outweigh the risks.

What’s been lost in the public discussion since the Disneyland measles outbreak began two months ago is that risks do exist and that there are vaccine-related problems we haven’t figured out yet.

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Parents who have chosen not to vaccinate their children – by getting exemptions to state requirements for immunization – have been criticized for being selfish and irresponsible.

In 28 years of writing about health for the Observer, I’ve talked to many of these parents. Some may be uninformed or overreacting out of fear. But others have decided after much thought and research.

They tell eerily similar stories of young children who had been developing normally until they got vaccines. Then they stopped talking and walking. They developed fevers and seizures. Some recovered, but some were never the same.

Those are anecdotes, isolated cases that mainstream medicine can dismiss. So I went looking for confirmed vaccine injuries.

Each year the federal government’s “vaccine court” awards millions of dollars to compensate people for vaccine injuries. These cases are rare, especially compared with the vast number of children who get vaccines. But the injuries documented in public records are profound and frightening.

I’ll say it again: Vaccine injuries are rare. But the damage, when it occurs, can be just as devastating as that caused by measles or other childhood illnesses.

Since January, I’ve heard little about this vaccine court in news accounts. And I’ve been struck by the near absence of warnings that vaccines, just like all medicines, can have rare, unexpected side effects.

“It is sad that we are in a state of mind in this country that if we don’t go with mainstream notions of vaccination that we are vilified even if we aren’t really anti-vaccine,” said Dr. Cammy Benton, a Stanley family doctor.

She said she knows of at least four children who, at 15-18 months, developed neurological symptoms in the days after getting vaccinations. Two had fever and seizures and stopped talking and walking. One had a fever, became nonverbal and intolerant to sound and touch. One withdrew, avoiding eye contact, and is now in a class for children with special needs.

Benton is one of the few local doctors willing to be quoted in support of parents who decide not have their children vaccinated. “People should know that there are doctors who believe like I do but are afraid to speak,” she said. While she supports immunization in general, she said she believes some children shouldn’t get vaccinated because of underlying genetic or medical conditions.

Many pediatricians downplay the potential for vaccine injury because they see the greater good and try to emphasize the value of vaccines. Some refuse to continue treating children if they’re not vaccinated.

We’ve all seen TV drug commercials that end with a voice rapidly reciting a long list of possible side effects, including death. Vaccines are drugs too, neither 100 percent effective nor 100 percent safe.

Shouldn’t we acknowledge that, just as there are children who have been seriously harmed by measles, there are children who have been seriously harmed by vaccines, however rare?

Instead of shouting people down, we could have a serious discussion – that might lead to more research – about what puts certain children at high risk for adverse reactions to vaccines.

Garloch: 704-358-5078

Since 2000 when health officials declared measles “eliminated” from the United States, the number of cases per year has ranged from a low of 37 in 2004 to a high of 644 in 2014.

In the decade before the measles vaccination program was introduced in the mid-1960s, an estimated 3 million to 4 million U.S. residents got measles each year. Of those about 400 to 500 died, 48,000 were hospitalized and another 1,000 developed chronic disability from measles encephalitis.

In North Carolina, 72 percent of children, ages 19 to 35 months, received recommended immunizations in 2013, compared to 70 percent nationally. Nearly 99 percent of North Carolina children received the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine before kindergarten in the 2013-14 school year.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, N.C. Department of Health and Human Services