Jennifer Wonnacott holds her son Gavin as he points to a sign showing support of a measure requiring nearly all California school children to be vaccinated, at a news conference after the bill was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, June 30, 2015, in Sacrame
Jennifer Wonnacott holds her son Gavin as he points to a sign showing support of a measure requiring nearly all California school children to be vaccinated, at a news conference after the bill was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, June 30, 2015, in Sacrame

WASHINGTON - Carli Leon remembers hearing the story of a young boy in Spain who died after contracting diphtheria. The 6-year-old boy’s parents had chosen not to have him vaccinated, and he died 28 days after initially showing symptoms.

“One of those things that anti-vaxx people say is, ‘Well, [the] U.S. is not a Third World country. Those diseases can’t possibly come back here,’" Leon told VOA.

Carli Leon, an Ohio mother of two, was once an act
Carli Leon, an Ohio mother of two, was once an active member in the anti-vaccine community. (Photo courtesy of Carli Leon)

The Ohio mother of two was once an active member in the anti-vaccine community, particularly online. Anti-vaccine groups, like the one she was a part of, believe that vaccines expose children to health risks and can cause harm.

Leon said she never thought about vaccinations until she became pregnant with her first daughter. The family she worked for as a nanny did not vaccinate their children and encouraged her to do the same.  Leon said part of what convinced her was the standard vaccine regimen for young children.

“I never really believed vaccines were linked to autism,” she said. “That wasn’t a belief or fear of mine. I just didn’t want my baby to have all those shots.”

The cost of vaccine hesitancy

Some medical professionals refer to this idea as “vaccine hesitancy.” The term can refer to a fear of a particular vaccine, or a concern that a baby’s immune system isn’t ready yet. Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told VOA he finds it helpful to point out “your body is already being exposed to many, many more stimulants than you’re going to get with a vaccine.”

Benjamin said vaccines aren’t any more overwhelming than the environment babies are exposed to at home. The world is filled with bacteria, viruses and other nasty microbes that a baby’s immune system is able to fight off. And the diseases they aren’t so well-equipped to handle? That's where vaccines come in.

Vaccine hesitancy might seem relatively harmless, but Benjamin said it can have costly effects.

“That big outbreak of measles we had out in California a few years ago, the one with Disneyland, a lot of that was not people who were adamantly opposed to vaccines, but they were hesitant for a variety of reasons,” he said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, over 100 confirmed cases resulted from an initial 11-year-old unvaccinated child. Twenty-eight of those infected were intentionally unvaccinated because of personal beliefs.

When it comes to vaccination issues, sick children missing class and falling behind in school aren’t the only costs.

“Somebody has to take care of that child when they’re home, so that may very well be a day of work for someone,” Benjamin noted, adding that there are also “health care costs if that child gets a complication from pertussis or measles or chickenpox.”

In the case of measles, as was seen in the Disneyland outbreak, what starts out as a rash can lead to dangerous and expensive complications such as deafness, cardiovascular complications, induced pneumonia, and even death.

Vaccines as a training ground

So how do vaccines prevent illnesses?

Dr. Esther Chernak, an infectious disease researcher at Drexel School of Public Health, told VOA that infectious diseases generally fall into four categories: viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites.

“We rely on our immune system to combat organisms or germs within all four of those categories,” she said.

Although vaccines are more commonly used for viral infections, such as measles and influenza, vaccines can also be used against bacteria and parasites. Tetanus and pertussis (whooping cough) are common examples of bacterial vaccines. There are vaccines in development against fungal infections, as well.

Chernak explained that all of these vaccines work in primarily the same way.

“They stimulate the immune system to ward off or fight organisms, generally by mimicking natural infection,” she said. 

Vaccines work by exposing the body to a weakened or killed form of the disease organism, or its chopped-up parts.

Vaccines are like taking your immune system to a martial arts class. It’s a chance for your body to train against all sorts of potential future attackers and learn how to respond more quickly and effectively. That way, when a real fight breaks out, your immune system can spring into action.

That’s the beauty of the immune system, said Chernak. “Once you’ve been exposed, the idea is that if the body is exposed to that microorganism a second time, or a third time or a fourth time, it elicits a memory response which is very strong and helps the body fight off that germ.”

Vaccines are all about preventing a future infection, many of which we don’t have a good treatment for if you do contract them.

“Measles, mumps and rubella are three viral infections for which there are no specific anti-viral medications,” Chernak said. “So [if] you get those infections, there’s no way to treat them.” Doctors may be able to lessen the symptoms, but they have to rely on the patient’s immune system to fight off the infection itself.

Vaccines are like any other medication

Reflecting on when she was against vaccinations, Leon said, “I was scared of the reactions that a lot of parents in the anti-vaxx community were saying that were happening to their kids” when they did get vaccinated. 

In response, Chernak notes that all medicine has side effects.

“Every time we take a medication, every time we choose a vaccine, it’s because we’ve made a decision that the potential side effects greatly outweigh the risk of natural infection,” she said.

For almost all patients, she said, the most common side effect is a sore arm from the injection.

Benjamin agrees.

“Study after study after study after study have demonstrated the effectiveness and the safety of vaccines,” he said

Every vaccine is slightly different, and individuals should always consult their doctor to avoid an allergic reaction.

But as Chernak told VOA, “We forget how severe these diseases of childhood are. We forget that measles is a disease that kills kids.”