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The Truth about Vaccines

Immunization is a preventive measure that can protect people against serious diseases. Parents naturally have many questions about vaccines and it's important that they get all the facts so they can make informed decisions about immunizing their children.

Download and print the Vaccine Q & A flyer "What Parents Need to Know" in these languages:

We've collected the most common questions and provided up-to-date answers below - click a question to jump to the answer:

Q: How do vaccines prevent disease?
Vaccines protect people from disease by strengthening a body's immune response. A vaccine's antigens help a body makes infection-fighting antibodies to fight disease invaders. If the actual disease germs ever attack the body, the antibodies will still be there to destroy them. Vaccines will make people immune to a disease without having to suffer through that disease.

Q: Are these diseases really dangerous?
Yes. Many vaccine-preventable diseases, such as smallpox, are no longer around so we have simply forgotten how horrible they are. But up until the 1960s, parents were terrorized by polio, a devastating disease that struck healthy children and still exists in many parts of the world. Before health care providers starting using the haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib) vaccine widely in 1991, there were about 20,000 cases of invasive Hib-related diseases every year---that rate has since declined 99 percent to about 35 cases per year. Even diseases that may seem mild, like chicken pox or influenza, can be deadly for some. During the 2009-10 flu season, 1,316 people in Oregon were reported hospitalized for influenza; 67 died. And before the varicella vaccine, about 100 people in the U.S. died from chicken pox every year---about half of them children. Vaccines are far safer than disease.

Q: Isn't it better for children to gain immunity naturally by getting the disease instead of the immunization?
Natural infection can come at a high price: chicken pox or pneumococcus can lead to pneumonia, rubella can cause birth defects, Hib can cause brain damage and children can die from any vaccine-preventable disease. A child may have a mild case or even no symptoms at all, but he or she could pass the disease on to a child who can't be immunized because of age or a medical condition.

Q: Aren't infants too young to get shots?
No. Many of the diseases that vaccines prevent occur in very young infants. Fortunately, most babies are born with sturdy immune systems that are very capable of making a protective immune response to vaccines. Vaccines don't weaken the immune system, they boost it.

Q: Are so many shots safe for my baby?
Babies are born from a sterile environment, but within minutes, they confront thousands of bacteria. By the time a baby is a week old, its skin, nose, throat and intestines are covered with tens of thousands of different bacteria. Fortunately, from the minute they're born, babies begin to develop an active immune response that keeps these bacteria from entering the bloodstream and causing harm. The dozen vaccines that children receive in the first two years of life are just a drop in the ocean when compared to the tens of thousands of environmental challenges that babies successfully manage every day.

It's not the number of shots that matter but the number of antigens in them. The original smallpox vaccine had 200 antigens in just one shot; today, there are only about 130 antigens in ALL of the routinely recommended immunizations combined. Several studies have determined that simultaneous vaccination with multiple vaccines have no adverse effect on a normal child's immune system. Another advantage of multiple immunizations is that children have fewer shots, fewer office visits and less discomfort. Spreading out vaccines may leave children unnecessarily vulnerable to disease.

Q: Why do children get so many more shots now?
As science progresses, children and adults are protected against more and more vaccine-preventable diseases. In the 1920s, there was just one vaccine: smallpox. At that time, hundreds of thousands of children got diphtheria---many of them died from it. By the 1950s there were five vaccines, including one for diphtheria, but still tens of thousands of children got sick from bacterial diseases such as meningitis or pneumonia caused by Hib or pneumococcus. Today we have vaccines for diseases that used to affect children every day. Healthy communities prove that immunizations are working.

Q: Do vaccines cause autism?
No. Many studies that included hundreds of thousands of children across the globe have compared kids who got vaccines with kids who didn't---there is no difference in the autism rate. Vaccines do not cause diseases, they prevent them.

Q: Is there mercury (thimerosol) in my baby's vaccines?
There is no mercury in routine childhood vaccines. None. In 2001, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) required vaccine manufacturers to stop using mercury preservatives in childhood vaccinations. The mercury that manufacturers had used, for example thimerosal, is ethyl mercury which is rapidly eliminated from the body. The only vaccine that still contains a mercury preservative is the flu vaccine that comes in a multi-dose vial. But the amount of mercury in a flu vaccine is five times less than in a tuna sandwich. A baby who breast feeds for six months gets 25 times more mercury than is in a single dose of flu vaccine. Mercury in vaccines is not dangerous, but there are single-dose flu vaccines available for young children and pregnant women, that don't contain any mercury.

Q: Is aluminum in vaccines harmful?
There is aluminum all around us, in water, food and air; it is the most common metal found in nature. There is aluminum in breast milk and baby formula, but babies quickly eliminate aluminum from their bodies with no danger to their health. Some vaccines contain small amounts of aluminum to help the body create a better immune response. There is no reason to fear aluminum.

Q: Do vaccines contain harmful additives?
No. Vaccines contain safe ingredients that improve potency and prevent contamination. Most of these additives appear in trace amounts, and none of them have proven harmful to animals or humans in these small amounts.

Q: We recently moved here from another state and I don't know what shots my child
has already received. Will it hurt him to get some shots twice?

Official records can't be recreated by memory, so parents are strongly encouraged to keep immunization records or obtain a copy from their previous state of residency. If parents don't have a record, having an immunization repeated won't hurt a child. Children in Oregon have their immunizations recorded in the ALERT Immunization Information System (IIS), a secure statewide registry that allows parents and providers to keep kids' records up-to-date