Everyone wants what’s best for their kids, of course, but combine the natural tendency of parents to worry with the fear-invoking power of the Internet, and sometimes our good intentions can be downright dangerous.
The 150-person measles outbreak that began in Disneyland, as well as cases closer to home, are signs that some parents are forgoing vaccinating their children from immunization-preventable diseases. Other parents, still worried about vaccines but equally concerned about their kids falling ill, may be choosing to follow an alternative vaccine schedule, like the one prescribed in The Vaccine Book by Robert Sears.
But vaccination experts agree that tinkering with a schedule that has been painstakingly developed and proven over decades to be both safe and effective is impractical, potentially dangerous and gives parents a false sense of security.
Since its original publication in 2007, The Vaccine Book has been embraced by parents who aren’t hardline “anti-vaxxers” but still have doubts. Sears, a California paediatrican, claims his book is not anti-vaccine, but offers parents choices, like an alternative vaccine schedule that includes delaying or spacing out (or forgoing) certain inoculations, giving combination vaccinations separately and performing diagnostic blood tests to see if some boosters are even needed.
“Some things recommended by this alternate schedule are not possible,” says Wendy Vaudry, a paediatric infectious disease specialist at the Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton and professor of paediatrics at the University of Alberta—especially in Canada. Blood tests for antibodies to pertussis (whooping cough) and other preventable ailments are not routine in most labs, and the vaccine for measles is only available in Canada in combination with mumps and rubella (German measles) and/or varicella (chicken pox).
Unlike the schedules recommended by individual provincial and territorial public health agencies, which are evidence based and well researched, Sears’s self-designed alternative vaccine schedule has little or no scientific basis. “Each province or territory’s schedule is designed to best protect children from diseases that can cause the most severe illness or even death,” says Bonnie Henry, British Columbia’s deputy provincial health officer and a member of the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI). “Spacing things out means an increased period of risk when a child’s immune system is still developing and they are likely to have a more severe case of an illness if they do get infected.”
Beyond ensuring your child is protected, keeping her on the provincially recommended vaccination schedule makes it simple to keep track of when she’s due for a shot. It’s also vital to maintaining “herd immunity,” in which the immunity of others protects those who are not or cannot be vaccinated, explains Henry. If too many parents opt out of the recommended vaccination schedule, it puts the responsibility for their children’s health into other people’s hands. “It’s analogous to saying, ‘My child doesn’t need to wear a seatbelt as long as everyone drives safely,’” says Vaudry. “The bottom line is that delaying or reducing the number of vaccines increases a child’s risk of contracting a vaccine-preventable disease.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 2015 issue with the headline "Are alternate vaccination schedules safe?" p. 28.