Emory University | Woodruff Health Sciences Center
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Simply Put: Vaccination Saves Lives

By Walter Orenstein and Rafi Ahmed

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In the United States, children are recommended to be vaccinated against 16 diseases.

All of these diseases have been reduced by more than 90% and many have been eliminated or reduced by 99%.

In addition to saving the lives of our children, vaccination has resulted in about $69 billion in economic benefits to society.

The only human disease ever eradicated, smallpox, was eradicated using a vaccine. A second, polio, is near eradication, also using vaccines.

Dr Orenstein

Rafi Ahmed

By Walter Orenstein and Rafi Ahmed, associate director and director of the Emory Vaccine Center, respectively.

Vaccines not only provide individual protection for the individuals who are vaccinated, they can provide community protection by reducing the spread of disease within a population.

Person-to-person infection occurs when someone who can transmit the disease comes in contact with someone who is susceptible. If the transmitting person only comes in contact with immune individuals, the infection does not spread and is rapidly contained.

This "herd immunity" is an important benefit of vaccination. High levels of coverage are important not only for individual protection but for preventing disease in vulnerable groups, such as infants too young to have completed their full series of vaccines.

This is why we should remove barriers that may prevent access, like cost, and support mandates for immunization requirements for attending school.

It's often said that vaccines save lives, but this is not strictly true—vaccination saves lives. A vaccine that remains in the vial is 0% effective, even if it is the best vaccine in the world.

In some sense, vaccines have become victims of their own success. Diseases that once induced fear and sparked desire for vaccines are now rare, and there is a false and dangerous sense of complacency.

And in recent years, growing numbers of people have become hesitant about vaccines due to fears of side effects, philosophical or religious beliefs, or other reasons.

This is already having an impact, as seen by a 159-case measles outbreak in the U.S. in 2015.

Still, more than 90% of parents in the U.S. say they will get all recommended noninfluenza vaccines for their children, with just 6% of parents intentionally delaying and 4% refusing one or more vaccines.

One of the major concerns has been the allegation that vaccines can cause autism, specifically:

• the combination MMR vaccine

• thimerosal, a preservative (now mostly taken out of vaccines recommended for children)

• too many vaccines.

Multiple, well-conducted studies and independent reviews of those studies by the National Academy of Medicine (formerly the Institute of Medicine) have not found vaccines to play a role in causing autism. And independent evaluation of the immunization schedule found it to be very safe.  

Vaccines are perhaps the most effective disease prevention tool we have—both for the person being vaccinated and the community in which they live.

Written for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


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